Tractors and Fertilizer, Sure, but 51st World Ag Expo Offers Sci-fi Glimpses Too

Published Feb. 13, 2018

By Robert Price for The Bakersfield Californian

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What we have here is a failure to communicate.

Silicon Valley and Big Ag, the two giants of California's thriving and vastly diversified economy, don't always seem to understand each other, despite abundant evidence that better cooperation would be mutually beneficial.

That schism was clear enough at the 2018 World Ag Expo, which began its three-day run Tuesday at the International Agri-Center near Tulare.

Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, who in the morning addressed a town hall-style gathering of Central Valley farmers, fielded questions about a number of challenges: water, regulation and immigration among them. But just as confounding was this issue, lobbed his way by an expo attendee: How can government and industry work together to better integrate farming with technological innovation?

The consensus in the banquet room: Silicon Valley just doesn't get it sometimes.

Well, it works both ways.

"A lot of people (in farming) are skeptical of Silicon Valley," said Chris Laudando, head of strategic partnerships for Motivo Engineering, a Fremont- and Gardena-based company with an intriguing solution to persistent agricultural problems. "They say Silicon Valley doesn't understand hardware. The (new high tech) tractor gets halfway down the row and stops and farmers say, 'That's it, we're never doing technology again.'"

The annual farm show had its usual array of sleek and shiny farm equipment, better built than last year's models to shake, gather, irrigate and fortify countless crops in a dozen climates, but it also featured innovations that a decade ago might have seemed straight out of a Ray Bradbury novel. If Ray Bradbury had written about farming on Earth.

One such innovation, right around the corner from the GUSS company's autonomous orchard sprayer -- a galvanized, beetle-like specimen the size of a Hummer limo -- was Motivo's Harvest Mobile Power Platform, which transfers power from its own portable solar panel to a tractor-like energy station capable of turning barren landscape, hundreds of miles from the grid, into productive farmland. And then, with the proper equipment, refrigerating the harvest.

Is this what farming might look like in a starving 21st century world? Motivo is among the companies banking on it.

One immediate application for Motivo's HMPP: Bringing the subsistence farming of the Third World out of poverty — and perhaps into the marketplace — by bringing electricity to the outback. Laudando said it's already happening in India. Next up, Africa.

Noted Motivo's Dean Case, one HMPP unit could be shared among several under-resourced independent farmers, co-op style. Co-owners could "sign out" individual units with a phone app. Call it the Uberization of agriculture in developing countries.

Motivo hopes its success in that sort of environment attracts the attention of U.S. agriculture, which could expand the finite resources of land and labor while cutting the emissions of diesel power generation.

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United States Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue posses for a photo with Noah Melban as his dad, Ken, takes the picture before the start of a question and ansewer with the Ag Secretary during the 2018 World Ag Expo in Tulare. Photo: A. Barrios for The Bakersfield Californian

Perdue, who stopped in Tulare as part of a multi-city tour of California, spoke to an invited audience that included four members of Congress. Besides water and regulation, he touched on infrastructure challenges, distribution logistics, dairy industry issues, California's "sanctuary state" status, and labor shortages.

Perdue, a former governor of Georgia, called an immigration bill that serves agriculture "absolutely vital." He told the story of another Georgia governor's plan to backfill a farm labor market hurt by a new state immigration law that threatened undocumented workers with deportation — prompting them to flee the state and leave their ag jobs.

The governor "came up with the idea of using probationers" as farm laborers, Perdue said. "The middle of the (second) day they all said, 'We'd like to just go back to prison.'"

Perdue sought to leave no doubt that, even as a member of Donald Trump's cabinet, he still embraces his blue collar background in dairy farming. Addressing Rep. David Valadao of Hanford, a dairyman himself, Perdue noted that he well remembered "the slimy mouth of a Holstein on a January morning."

After the town hall, Perdue walked the expo grounds. No word on how much of the show's 2.6 million square feet of show space he took in.

To read the full schedule of the 51st World Ag Expo, visit The Bakersfield Californian.

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