Ag at Large: On-farm tech use promoted in July

Photo courtesy of UCD Apps for Ag – Ag for Hire team at the Apps for Ag Hackathon held on December 2-3, 2015 at the UC Davis World Food Center.

By Don Curlee | Contributed

A light-hearted encouragement to apply more technology to farm operations is being promoted by the University of California and a special event at the California State Fair.

Getting California farmers better acquainted with and more involved in technology that can resolve on-farm issues has been a widening pursuit for the past four or five years. This summer’s emphasis will be showcased at a hackathon before a large crowd at the California State Fair July 17. The fair runs from July 9 to July 18.

The hackathon amounts to a competition between various farm chores and duties that have been transformed by being submerged in technology. A typical example might be a heavy duty mechanical operation converted to respond to a signal from a hand held app. Controlling a hay baling operation remotely with a hand held selector isn’t possible yet, but may be, down the road.

At the University of California, Davis, the folks in the Agriculture and Natural Resources Department have been accumulating a list of such chores. On July 17 they will oversee a competition between the most imaginative. Later the same day, a group of winners will demonstrate their tech-centered success stories before a crowd gathered at Sacramento’s annual State Fair.

Like many tech-led operations and activities, a new and unfamiliar (to many farmers, at least) terminology and language operates. Hackathon comes from that venue, and means simply a competition between various tech operations, some of which might be hacked (invaded or stolen) from another. Rules might not be as tight as those governing football inflation levels at the Superbowl.

Last year’s hackathon, the third annual, was held at West Hills College in Coalinga. Clint Cowden, manager of the college’s 250-acre farm, coordinated the event with help from his wife, who also teaches at the college. He said the event was one of the most exciting happenings of the school year.

Cowden is hopeful that the number of farm-to-tech projects entered in the hackathons will grow, and that an increasing number of farmers will offer their tough issues for tech-centered analysis and solutions. He said tradition doesn’t lead farmers and farm managers to consider technological solutions, but sharing the experience of those who have done it successfully will expand participation.

The winner of the hackathon at West Hills was Josh Brown, who entered a tech-centered program called Ag for Hire. It connects farm workers looking for jobs with farmers who need workers. Brown met the business’s co-founder at the “Apps for Ag” site, and said, “I would not have been able to find someone so embedded in the agriculture industry on my own.”
Apps for Ag is a pro-bono endeavor supported by several Ag Tech hubs around the state, founded by the Ag Tech Roundtable. Members of the group include the U.S. Department of Agriculture, California Department of Food and Agriculture, California Department of Technology, California Farm Bureau Federation, California Association of Pest Control Advisers and other organizations.

In regard to the upcoming event and hackathons in the years ahead, UCANR’s chief information officer Gabe Youtsey said, “Let’s see what happens when we mix developers from Silicon Valley and Southern California with the agricultural experts from the Central Valley, coast and desert regions.”

When you consider the breadth of agricultural interests represented, the happenings might be spectacular. From tree and vine pruning, the harvest and handling of hundreds of crops, protections from pests and disease, the care, breeding and milking of dairy and other animals and poultry, the challenges should be ample.

Technology is welcome to the table. Deal it in and hack away.