What’s growing in the horticulture industry - a snapshot of emerging Agritech

The horticulture industry is one in which I have keenly observed as an avid fan of food, but not something I have investigated immensely in either academic studies or professionally. However, given this I am excited to learn a lot and provide interesting content on a few key areas of development in the industry.

Funnily enough each of these could simultaneous be used to describe agritech developments in almost all Primary Industries here and abroad (provided you swap “crop management” to “farm management” etc.)

So to begin I’ll discuss the major umbrella in which most horticultural agritech development falls under……

Crop management - This includes almost anything related to production of horticultural produce. Everything from soil preparation, planting, harvesting, plant husbandry and anything to do with production management of a horticultural business. Like any industry, management of your product is essential to the productivity and bottom line of the business, for horticulture this is predominantly derived from the quantity and quality of the harvested vegetables and/or fruit.

Back to agritech, trendy developments almost exclusively seem to influence crop management. Firstly, Big Data – Now this seems to be popping up everywhere from academic research, books, blogs, Twitter, you name it. But, what is it? Simply big data is the term used to describe big data sets, those in which have been captured and generated from newly created ICT (information communication technologies) to precisely quantify data from almost anything on farm. The challenge and opportunity that this big data presents obtained through further analysis and understanding of what the data means. Ultimately using big data can and will result in improvement in business productivity.

Big data encompasses the use of smart device and apps. For example, Logic Labs, a New Zealand start-up, is in the process of developing an app for estimating crop production, thereby eliminating double handling of data (by the growers & pack house staff). Apps are also being developed by our closest neighbours to help map nationwide crop production as a means to assist growers with planting decisions and monitoring. Ultimately apps like these and software solutions (like Muddy Boots & Vinea) create more data which, when harnessed, can improve decision making.

In horticulture big data is also being captured and processed by precision agriculture (including some forms of robotics). Planet Labs is a business that provides “near real time” satellite imagery for users in North America, South America, Europe, Asia and Australia. The data captured by a fleet of satellites can be used by horticulture and other agricultural users to monitor crops (health, biomass etc.), track farm operations and activities, scout crops (for the influence of pests) or used for predicting production. According to AgFunder’s 2015 Agtech Investment Report, this business invested $123 million to acquire ‘RapidEye’ as a means to improve their satellite capabilities.

There are also prominent developments in robotics being used for more traditional functions like seedling selection, plant thinning, input application (see Blue River Technology’s Lettuce thinning robot), or quite simply moving pots at nurseries. These labour saving robotics help improve productivity and reduce cost.  

Developments in big data, precision agriculture and robotics all create opportunities for the creation of new businesses and industry competition.  Emerging business models include vertical and urban agriculture (check out AeroFarms the “world’s largest indoor vertical farm”); and of course new software systems like the The Climate Corporation (TCC). Their business is changing the way arable and horticultural farmers make decisions by providing “hyper-local weather monitoring”, crop modelling and high-resolution weather simulations (TCC was purchase by Monsanto for almost $1 billion dollars in 2013.) Locally we have BioLumic who is using UV light (using a UV device) to treat seedlings, which eventually improves produce yield, quality and disease resistance.

Collectively these areas are just a few noteworthy examples of developments within the horticultural industry. Other areas of development also include ‘auto field transplantation’ (for crop management), auto fruit harvesting, remote sensing, microbiome and post-harvest near-infrared scanning.

As an observer of the industry I am excited to see how innovations like these change the industry and ultimately the wonderful foods available to buy. 

Hamish Hammond is a guest blogger for Sprout. He's completed a Bachelor of Agricommerce degree from Massey University and taken on the role of research assistant part time at OneFarm, all while he continues to train toward becoming a professional triathlete. The research he completed during his degree was focussed on the role of the farm information management system “AgHub” for the collation of different farm related information onto a single point online database. Hamish is also a regular agritech blogger for the OneFarm website.