The AgChem Summit, a conference that Lux sits on the content planning board of, brings together agrichemical, biological, and disruptive technology developers to discuss key global economic and innovation initiatives. This year, three key topics, each of which is relevant broadly across agrifood, pervaded the event: 1) the state and needs of hemp production in North America, 2) the challenges and opportunities for spray drones, and 3) sustainability initiatives driving industry innovation but requiring technology integration.
1. Hemp is gaining significant momentum as a valued U.S. crop but suffers from limited input choices
The Summit's first day was dedicated to the crop protection challenges facing the growing but yet-uncertain hemp production industry. Hemp remains designated as a minor crop, and efforts to support the input needs of the industry are being guided by the IR-4 Project. The IR-4 Project aids growers by facilitating registrations of pesticides and biopesticides for specialty food crops (fruits, vegetables, nuts, herbs, spices) and environmental horticulture crops (trees, shrubs, flowers). Available crop protection solutions for hemp are limited to plant-based oil products and live microbial products, and limited data is available around efficacy for these solutions. A North Carolina State University agriculture extension specialist brought to attention the importance of considering end markets in establishing industry needs and priorities for crop protection – although both diseases and insects are of equal concern. Flower and seed grain solutions must focus on maximum residue limits and protecting flower and seed heads (e.g., corn earworm or tobacco budworm), while fiber production must focus on stem boring issues. While research to improve access to inputs like isofetamid is underway, expect relatively slow progress in flower-based needs due to potential issues around the unintentional production of hot hemp (i.e., that above the 0.3 THC content level).
2. Spray drones see rapid improvement thanks to innovations in standard platforms
Many challenges have yet to be solved toward improving the scalability of drone platforms for the delivery of crop inputs. Five different challenges were presented by USDA researchers, including payload limitations (4 gallons), battery life (may be limited to a 10 min application time), swath width (the relationship between swath and droplet size is critical), application rate (drone-sized pumps limited to 0.5 gal/min), and existing regulatory hurdles. The first four factors interact to limit the capacity of off-the-shelf systems to no more than 10 acres per hour. Regulatory hurdles remain possible to overcome but take significant time investment.
Despite these challenges, movement forward is evident and was supported by outcomes outlined by Rantizo CEO Michael Ott. Making improvements to existing platforms (i.e., DJI drones), the company is able to achieve 14 acres per hour coverage with a single drone and can offer nearly double that value (23 acres per hour) by automating battery and input refilling. More importantly, the company has now received multidrone use approval increasing these rates with three drones flying simultaneously to 40 acres and 60 acres per hour, respectively, which is similar to that of tractor systems but remains far below the rate of airplane systems (estimated at around 200 acres per hour). It is important to note that larger drones like the Pyka Pelican, which was recently approved in the U.S., offer application speeds closer to those of manned aircraft.
3. Sustainability initiatives highlighting outcomes are driving innovation but require integration
Sustainability has become a business must for the agriculture industry. The event showcased projects from agtech enablers like Barney Debnam and Ranveer Chandra from Microsoft and perspectives on profitably scaling sustainability shared by Miya Howell, lead for Sustainable Ag at Bayer. Each uniquely brought to light the need to integrate existing technologies more effectively to seize the opportunity. As you consider technology integration, keep in mind the three important layers, in order of need for achieving integration, that emerged: how to connect, how to improve predictive capacity, and how to become cognitive (i.e., automated).
The AgChem Summit provided some significant and broad insight across agriculture innovation. Hemp remains on the world's horizon, and as crop choices evolve with food and feedstock needs, so too will input opportunities. For now, minor crops still have uncertain but advancing futures for crop protection, but monitor closely and consider opportunities to engage and expand existing product uses. In addition, the event provided excellent insight into emerging technologies, including delivery chemistries for synthetics and bio-based products alike, and built a discussion around integration opportunities with evolving application systems like drones. From the discussion at the Summit, companies should expect drones to continue to gain niche breadth and likely become a component of the integration opportunity toward sustainability.