Vonnie Estes, Vice President of Technology at Produce Marketing Association (PMA), tells us why adoption of technologies including digitization and machine learning will be vital to agri-food producers

World Agri-Tech Innovation Summit - Speaker - Vonnie Estes
Vonnie Estes, VP of Technology, Produce Marketing Association

The creation of your role as Vice President of Technology is a strong statement by the Produce Marketing Association of the importance of innovation for the industry. What is PMA’s vision and what impact do you think you can have?
PMA’s vision is to bring together the global produce and floral communities to grow a healthier world. We do this by connecting and delivering solutions to problems faced by our members. The development and adoption of technology for producers is a critical challenge impacting food production.
Many immediate problems need technology solutions that currently exist. A fairly direct path for product adoption can be deployed if the technology is ready and both the developer and producer can iterate. These solutions benefit from having a translator that understands the needs for both sides and can make the connections. In addition, technologies can solve problems in new ways we hadn’t considered. And there are problems we don’t know we have yet. I joined PMA in October 2018 with a commitment to connecting and helping to solve the current and future problems of the industry with technical solutions.

What current problems is the industry trying to solve?
If you ask the produce industry their top ten problems, they will say labor is 1-9. Number 10 varies by who they are. The obvious answer to many may be to build robots to replace humans in the field. But we need to unpack the organizational issues farm-wide and find the possible, non-obvious solutions. For example, if broccoli was bred to be harvested once instead of multiple times, labor needs would be decreased. Or if we had technology that easily and precisely predicted disease onset, less sprays would be required and those could possibly be done by drones. There are multiple technologies affecting all areas of the farm that could have an impact on this important issue if developed with growers to truly meet their needs.
Additional current issues we are focusing on with a variety of technical solutions are:

  • Food safety and traceability
  • Water availability, quality, use and nutrient management
  • Changing needs and transparency from retailers and consumers
  • Input stewardship: nutrition, pest control
  • Data interoperability and stranded data

And what are the future or non-obvious problems? 
Producers have unyielding workloads with continuous uncertainties outside their control. Their attention must focus on current problems affecting their daily productivity and profitability. They don’t have time to ponder the possible disruptions of the future.
Technology will drive change in food production. Many benefits will come from increased efficiencies from increasingly better tools like better planters and improved crop inputs. But technology will also cause seismic disruptions in the entire food supply chain.
Digitalization will give us the ability to use machine learning and advanced analytics to mine data for trends across all parts of production. This is used in Ag now but mostly in siloed applications and not integrated across large acreage. Many annoying issues exist: the apps don’t integrate, they often require redundant inputs across multiple machines, they constantly need updates, some are tied to subscription services, and they really don’t work yet. But when data can be integrated and production has full use of machine learning, the way we produce food will change and the supply chain will be disrupted.
Digitization has the power to quickly destroy well-established business models. Being competitive will require new ways of thinking. What does it mean to be a producer? Digitization can fuel the shift from products to services. Will we move to farming as a service? How will producers differentiate themselves? How will they make a profit?
Producers will have to respond to consumers increasing power to get what they want, how they want it, and when they want it. Consumers will demand more nutritious food and different kinds of food. They will want transparency of the food chain so they can choose from producers that have a traceable agreed upon metric of food waste and sustainability. Producers of today must make decisions in staffing and technology acquisition to win in the future.

What drives adoption of new technologies and why is it moving more slowly in Ag?
Technologies are being adopted in Food and Ag but at a slower rate than other industries. Margins are razor-thin throughout the supply chain. Companies may have little appetite to invest in new, unproven innovations with such tight margins. Additionally, Food and Ag is a very physical industry, spanning all geographies with an actual physical footprint. It is much harder to convert the physical to digital compared to industries like finance where information already resides on computers as digits. Producers as a group are protective and competitive about their data, which doesn’t support the ability to use machine learning across many users. Unlike some industries Ag has an intrenched infrastructure. The domination of large companies with their market power, accepted business models and layers of distribution are hard to disrupt and change. Large capital investments in companies like FBN and Plenty will result in different business models and continued disruption.
For broad adoption new technologies must provide value along the chain from input suppliers to retailers and consumers. Products and systems must deliver increased efficiency, production, and competitiveness; and/or make life easier. Fortunately, early adopters will work with technical providers in the development phase, but we won’t get large scale adoption until problems can be solved for the many. Our job is to make that path from brilliant technology to producer results go more quickly.

What’s on the horizon, the emerging trend or game-changing technology you most want to succeed in the next 5-10 years?
I’m excited about the digitization of Ag and machine learning. It is messy now with data coming in from all different devices on different platforms. I’ve seen up to 10 different dashboards open on a producer’s desk – with no connection to each other. But they are doing it anyway! Producers are extremely progressive and looking for solutions.
The value to food production will be exponential as we move towards a common platform and collect and analyze data using Big Data and machine learning. It will give us benefits like the information to breed better and bring genetics to market faster potentially with better nutrition. We will be able to be more precise with crop protection and nutrition resulting in better results with fewer inputs. Business models will change which I believe will bring more new technologies and ways to get products to market. Soon the food supply chain won’t be asking ‘How do I use AI?’ or ‘What do I do with blockchain?’ – it will just be there, embedded in the business like it is our phones.

Vonnie will speak on the Day 2 panel discussing: Fireside Chat: Growers are at the Front Line of AgTech Innovation. What is Their Experience of Using Technology and How can Start-Ups Better Navigate the Adoption Process? at 12.30pm on Wednesday March 20. Meet the Produce Marketing Association team at the World Agri-Tech Innovation Summit, San Francisco, March 19-20. Visit www.pma.com or follow PMA on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.