FIRA Debuts a New Event in California’s San Joaquin Valley

FIRA USA will make its debut on October 18, 2022, in Fresno, California. The event site is significant for a number of reasons. Fresno is part of California’s fertile San Joaquin Valley, a hub for specialty crop growers. The Golden State also provides a prime location for companies interested in tapping into a highly profitable agriculture market—one that produces more than 400 commodities and two-thirds of the total fruits and nuts crops in the United States. California farmers and ranchers earned $49.1 billion in cash receipts for their output in 2020 alone.

To help ensure the success of this first-time event, FIRA partnered with Gabriel Youtsey, Chief Innovation Officer at University of California, Agriculture, and Natural Resources, and Walt Duflock, Vice President of Innovation at Western Growers. Youtsey and Duflock, who are working to provide “boots on the ground” support for the forthcoming three-day conference, see great potential in spotlighting agriculture robotics and automation in a place where it’s sorely needed.

“We really wanted to bring a FIRA event to the US because the US market for specialty crop AgTech startups is the first or second market to enter so it makes perfect sense to have this event right in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley. FIRA USA organizes the entire specialty crop community – educators, commercialization folks, startup companies, and large and small growers—and puts the entire event focus on specialty crop automation for three days,”

says Duflock.

The specialty crop piece of the equation is particularly important because it is an industry segment that has much to gain from ag robotics and automation. Specialty crops, which the U.S. Department of Agriculture defines as “fruits and vegetables, tree nuts, dried fruits and horticulture and nursery crops, including floriculture,” tend to be more labor-intensive to produce and pick, and require more sophisticated technological solutions.

Duflock and Western Growers are working to advance the pace of innovation in this sector through the Global Harvest Automation Initiative. One of the initiative’s action items is to automate 50 percent of fresh specialty crop harvest production in the next 10 years.

For his part, Youtsey is focused on attaining similar goals by ensuring the event addresses the agriculture industry’s most pressing topics in a substantive, no-nonsense way. FIRA USA is built to be a place for developing real-world solutions.

“I firmly believe we should always put agtech startups on stage with a grower that knows their product, unless it’s a fundraising pitch or in demo day. Engaging the grower in the conversation helps the conversation get real and makes the presentation more relevant for grower audiences that want to get the grower and startup perspective on the solution. Farmers can see the holes and recognize the gaps in the technology, and those things get called out with grace. It also gives the startup a chance to address those concerns in a real-world context,”

Youtsey says.

To keep the event focused on actionable outcomes, FIRA USA is structured to maximize opportunities for networking, learning, and collaboration. Each of the three days has a theme. There is a research-and-development day, technology day, and demonstration day. The event will begin with a keynote that centers on the future of California agriculture, common industry challenges, and the need for automation. This sets the stage for the remainder of the event’s programming to address solutions.

“On the R&D day, we’re going to bring a lot of the scientists and students together. There are a lot of new ag technologists in universities around the country that are winning some of the new artificial intelligence grants for ag automation. We want to use this event as an opportunity to bring them together face-to-face in Fresno and really set their priorities. We want to get them focused on solving some pain points that are still problematic and developing,”

Youtsey says.

“The technology day would all be focused on growers, equipment manufacturers, and investors working on commercializing and scaling the technologies discussed on day one. Then, the third day will be a demo day, where we see current technologies operating,”

Youtsey continues.

In the panel discussions, breakout sessions, and roundtables throughout the event, the participants will build on several big-picture themes: understanding specific specialty crops, introducing different levels of automation and smart technologies, optimizing mechanization, prioritizing value for growers of all sizes, addressing climate-smart objectives, determining appropriate ownership and maintenance models, and more.

Another big draw will be the in-depth look at the Global Harvest Automation Report, which dives into the state of harvest automation technology today. The report also names the startups that are doing the work to move the needle faster and most effectively based on crop type, giving growers and investors an inside look at where to potentially spend their dollars.

Combined with the other event programming, Youtsey and Duflock agree that FIRA USA will be an information-packed event for everyone.

“Attendees are going to be able to join the first ag robotics and automation event that focuses on specialty crops that we know of. It’ll have the right mix of growers, technologists, academics, and scientists in one place to really advance the ag-tech innovations a lot faster,”

Youtsey says.

Duflock agrees. In fact, he’s so sure the event will be revolutionary that he’s beginning negotiations with the weather gods ahead of time.

“I can say with certainty that October 1st through the 20th will be the only time when Western Growers roots against rain because it’ll make a sloppy mess out of our field trial day. Regardless, if you want the scoop on specialty crop innovations from the research phase in the labs to the commercialization and field trials, and you want to get all of it in three days, you’ve got to be in Fresno.”

Duflock laughs, saying that outside of this specific window, the organization hopes for rain year-round.

Source: FIRA