Welcome to the Cultivating Conversations podcast brought to you by the team at Chaseman Global. In this series we’re bringing you conversations with experts from across life sciences. We chat with our guests about the challenges of today’s market, discovering their opinions, solutions and ideas for the future of the industry.
Our Research and Delivery Lead Steve Collins recently sat down with Naio Technologies Sales Director for North America Marcus Dunning. We worked with Marcus to secure his new role at the Agricultural Robotics Specialists earlier this year. Marcus has 20 years experience in the agriculture market and has some great insights into the changing industry. Steve and Marcus discussed everything from farm-to-fork tracking right up to actions farmers can and are taking to combat climate change.
Hi all, welcome to Chaseman Global Agriculture Podcast. I’m Steve Collins and today I’m joined by Marcus Dunning from Naio Technology. We’re going to use this time to discuss Marcus, Naio, their journey so far as well as the conversation around legacy versus livelihood in agriculture technology.
So, Marcus, thanks for joining us today. I, of course, placed you at Naio Technology so I know your story, the journey that you’ve been on prior to Naio and up until this point with Naio. But just for our listeners if you could give us some insight into your career so far and the journey that you’ve been on that would be great.
Absolutely, so I started my career as an irrigation engineer and designer primarily for vineyards in California. I worked for a good few years in the irrigation field working with production agriculture, vineyards and crop farmers. Very much always had a specialty in agriculture. I then had the opportunity to progress my career by working for a couple of years in the packaging space for a company that developed RPCs. This helped me to really understand more of the agricultural community outside of California. I then worked for a company called Plant Tape which makes an automated transplanter, which introduced me to the agriculture technology space and sparked a fire for everything that’s going on in this industry. I recently moved to Naio where I’m excited to be working with them to grow the business in North America for them.
Fantastic, and what would you say is the most exciting thing for you about your move to the AgTech space?
Partly the pace, I love the pace of this industry. But also knowing that we can help farmers advance what they are doing. There are a lot of people who are trying to figure out how to continue to stretch the dollar so they can grow their operations. Technologies like ours help alleviate some of the labour issue and a lot of AgTech is helping growers better utilising the implements that they already have. Whether it’s Naio type technologies, their fertiliser application or using aerial imagery to make note of yields etc. It’s fun to watch what’s happening in the farming industry right now.
Absolutely, I think Naio is the company that draws a lot of interest across the space. Largely probably because of the technology they have and the impact they can have on the farms. For anyone who doesn’t know can you share a little about Naio, what they do as a business and the technology that you are out there pushing?
So, Naio the HQ is based in Toulouse in France. We build autonomous weeding robots right now and there are three different platforms that we have. We have our Oz Robot which is primarily for smaller organisations (1-20 acres), Dino robot which is for larger production speciality crop weeding, Ted Robot designed for the vineyard market. Naoi is currently built for weeding but we’re planning on expanding this into new areas whether that be spraying or seeding. It’s basically developing an autonomous vehicle that can be used in place of all the extra labour and tractors etc in the field. The idea is to improve a grower’s sustainability in their operation. Naio is very dedicated to getting this platform perfect to what the grower needs.
How are the farmers responding now, how are customers growing and what’s the initial marketplace feedback?
In Europe we have around 150 robots across a few different platforms working across the continent right now. Here in the US we’re working with a few early adopters. This is normally the first step, the guys who look at AgTech early on to improve and develop their operations. The feedback so far has been great, and the growers we’re working with have also been very happy to work with us to improve the technology and let us mess up a little and fix it. They understand that we’re still developing the technology. We’re seeing some really good results in the weeding process, labour and cost reduction through using our platform here.
Sounds like things are going fantastically! And, what would you say away from Naio the impact the tech revolution is having on agriculture in general right now?
Here in the US we’re really starting to see some fast growth. A lot of the technology has been developed in Europe, and this is because Europe went through a lot of the labour issues that the US is experiencing now 15 to 20 years ago. They had to develop this technology as a response to this, here in the 60’s the automated tomato harvester was developed but overall, there haven’t been leaps and bounds until the last few years. We’re finally starting to see some real investment in AgTech in the US, as well as the rest of the world. A lot of the developments has been in the robotics side, particularly soft robotics and shelf life extension.
A big piece that I think is coming soon, born out of the food–born diseases we’ve seen recently, is around the food tracking logistics side of things. There are some great companies out there that can do some truly great things truly being able to track from ‘farm-to-fork’ to use that cliché. Being able to track the exact field a lettuce on your table came from.
I think we’re going to see some exponential growth over the next three–five years due to technology availability, 100 times faster than we’ve seen in the last 20 years and it’s just exciting to be on this side of things right now.
Of course, and I think lots of it is born out of necessity but equally there’s a lot now, because of the technology available to us, that can help growers to push forward that growth. How important would you say it is for growers of all sizes to embrace the change?
I tell people all the time, if you’re not willing to embrace the change right now you’re not going to be here five years from now. The days of being able to operate like your dad did, or your grandad did are quickly disappearing. You need to be able to adapt to the changes that are coming. We’re not creating more farmland. It’s disappearing daily, whether that be from urban sprawl or climate changes. We need to be able to better utilise the space that we have as much as we can. A lot of AgTech adoption takes two – five years of learning and trialling them within your operation, so if you’re not already looking at these things then you’re going to be a lot further behind people who are looking at them already five years from now. It’s vital that growers of all sizes from five acres to 5,000 right up to 50,000 acres.
So we touched on budgets within farms, and growers with smaller budgets. I think in a lot of cases budget constraints are more common than people think, and farmers are working to these tight budgets. How do you think growers can address the link between sustainability and profitability across agriculture?
This is always tough right. There’s a big push from the consumer side for sustainable agriculture, which goes from the consumer to the supermarket who push that on to the grower, but sadly the cost doesn’t get passed through leaving it up to the grower.
A lot of farmers must look at where they can implement a few things here and there to improve their organisations, no farmer is going to adopt everything. For instance, a farmer with a couple of acres growing for the local market probably isn’t going to adopt a load of AgTech. Now if you look at a 50,000-acre operation, those growers can look at a lot of things. Incremental changes can really help to save money and have a big impact on the success of the business. With larger operations, smaller changes can have a pretty big impact on the business, but I think this is where we’ll see more growth in the sustainability side.
I agree, I think that there’s lots of challenges in agriculture right now but that’s what makes it such an exciting space right now. What I’d love to get a deeper dive into your opinion on is Climate Change. Obviously, it’s at the forefront of almost every industry’s focus right now, lots of people are thinking about how we can make things more sustainable. How can we put the legacy of farming and sustainability higher on the agenda do you think?
There’s a lot of misinformation in my opinion, consumers are told that farming is not sustainable currently and that farmers are destroying the environment. But this just isn’t my experience over the last 20 years in the industry. Of course, there are residual issues from things that were done 20-30 years ago.
I think that Farmers already understand that they need to keep what they have; they can’t get any more farmland and they need to be as sustainable as possible and look after what they have. I do think there will be a lot of changes in the pesticide and fertiliser use, and that industry does need some innovation to help here.
Climate change means growers are already having to adjust to the seasons that are changing. It’s going to be interesting to watch how it will truly affect the agriculture industry but I think that farmers are already making a change so they can make sure they will still be operating in 10-20 years. You can see the indoor growing industry shifting (leafy greens, tomatoes things like that) but ultimately there will always be things that need to be grown on the ground, so we need to find a way to keep it around.
We work with lots of companies doing different bits in the space, and we are seeing companies coming forward really pushing for the positive change and that’s only a good thing.
Absolutely, the growers don’t want to destroy the land. They want the land to keep going. This is what’s providing a market for companies like Naio.
Well that brings me nicely onto my next question, which you might have a little bias for given your background in autonomous robotics, but I’d love to know your insight. What do you think will be the next technology to really shake up agriculture?
There’s already work being done in soft robotics, picking of fruits like strawberries and citrus fruits which have a very short harvest and are extremely labour intensive. They need a lot of staff over a very short window to pick the crops. I think we’ll see some big shake ups in this space, and I think we’re going to see big growth over the next few years here.
The natural extension of shelf life. If we can add the shelf life of a product by a week for example that would dramatically reduce the price it can be sold at in the store because the turnover isn’t as high.
Robotics still has huge growth potential. From autonomous trucking to tracking of product from farm to table I think will be a massive area.
These are where I see the big industry shakeups. Perhaps automated harvesters for leafy greens etc, we all know that labour is a finite resource and a lot of people don’t want to do the hard work in the field so automation that can take over from the labour is where we’ll see big improvements.
Fantastic, that’s all we have time for today. It’s been a pleasure to reconnect and to discuss your journey and your thoughts on the industry so a big thank you Marcus for joining me and giving up some of your morning for us.