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Inaugural FIRA USA Ag Robotics Forum attracts people from around the world


Agriculture and the global food supply is threatened by a range of issues including drought, climate impacts, increasing business costs and labor scarcity. To forge solutions to these issues and more, on Oct. 18-22 nearly 1,000 attendees from 26 countries converged in Fresno for the inaugural FIRA - World Ag Robotics Forum to be held in the U.S. UC ANR's Verde Innovation Network for Entrepreneurship, or the VINE, co-sponsored the event.

Widely observed as a pivotal moment for agricultural technology and robotics in U.S. agriculture, the event was kicked off by California Department of Food and Agriculture Secretary Karen Ross and moved into a packed agenda with panel discussions, lightning talks and pitches where automation company representatives, academics and growers had the opportunity to share their challenges, concerns and hopes for the future of autonomous farming. The event culminated at CSU Fresno with over a dozen companies offering in-the-field demonstrations (See link and field day).

Here are a few themes and takeaways the VINE team took away from this pioneering multi-day event.

Gaining On-Farm Use - Focus on end user needs and ease of use!

“If your technology requires Internet and we don’t have access to broadband in a rural area, we can’t use it,” Aubrey Bettencourt (in red dress) of The Almond Alliance cautioned ag tech developers.

A major question speakers tackled was why more growers aren't yet integrating automation into their farms. Automation solutions exist and are being developed to help growers in nearly every aspect of running a farm — from planting, harvesting and weeding to addressing persistent labor shortages. Despite this, ag automation companies, both big and small, still face resistance from growers to adopting new technologies.

Part of the problem, Jeff Morrison of Grimmway Farms said during a panel on mechanization versus automation, is that companies pay more attention to their product than the needs of the grower. “Farmers want technology that fills a particular need,” he said.  Anna Haldewang, the founder of InsightTRAC, agreed. “Don't be married to your product, be married to your customer.” 

Chuck Baresich, president of the Haggerty Ag Robotics Company, emphasized the importance of creating automation solutions that are simple and intuitive to use. “For a manufacturer, the first thing I'd tell them is don't overcomplicate things,” he said.  “Make sure your robot can drive straight, start with that.” 

Panels also touched on the technical, business and regulatory challenges to automating agriculture. The agtech startup market is much younger than Silicon Valley, and we don't yet know the best route to establishing a successful business, Rob Trice of Better Food Ventures and The Mixing Bowl observed during a panel on robotic product development with key industry leaders, including Walt Duflock, vice president of innovation for Western Growers. That said, panelists identified three things that startups should do:

  • Get prototypes into the field as quickly as possible to get performance data and get feedback, including from farmworkers, who may come up with multiple uses for the product.
  • Be transparent about development to build partnerships with investors and growers. Partners understand that startups are a work-in-progress.
  • Be ready to evolve and change your technology or your business to meet the customers' needs. Love the customer, not the tech.

AgTech, Labor and Farmworkers - Forging win-win opportunities

Robotic equipment performed weeding in different ways. This machine kills weeds with a laser.
Labor issues also emerged as a persistent theme during the event. One of the major forces driving the need for automation in agriculture is persistent labor shortages. Simply put, farmers do not have sufficient labor to sustain their operations and are turning to agtech, robotics and automation to fill the gap. At the same time, as robotics and automation take hold in the agriculture industry, farmworkers and farm labor organizations are rightly concerned about the impact that the adoption of automation will have on agriculture jobs, in particular farm labor jobs.

Hernan Hernandez of the California Farmworker Foundation acknowledges the labor concern, but also sees opportunity. “All of a sudden, you go from 100 individuals that are going to be able to harvest this season to now 10 that will harvest with a machine," he said. "But the way we look at it is as well, when we talk to farmworkers and engage them, and we look at data, there is also opportunity. We know a lot of the farmworkers want opportunities to further their skill sets.”

This sense of optimism about the future of the farmworker was shared by Gabe Youtsey, chief innovation officer of UC ANR, who moderated a panel on the future of agricultural work. “California as a whole has begun recognizing the importance of creating the next generation of ag workers,” he observed, “and schools and industry have both taken notice.” Indeed, California community colleges have begun working on new relevant programs that translate directly to jobs, and the federal government has allocated $10 million going directly to Central Valley agricultural education and workforce development programs.

Gabe Youtsey, on right, asked a panel at FIRA about the future of agricultural work. From left, Chris Thiessen of Burro, Dennis Donahue of Western Growers Association, Sandra Sanchez, California Community Colleges vice chancellor of workforce and economic development; Elizabeth Mosqueda, Madera Community College agriculture instructor; and Joani Woelfel of Far West Equipment Dealers Association.

What's next?

The gathering also served as a platform for launching new technology initiatives. Youtsey, in collaboration with our partners at UC Davis AI Institute for Food Systems, announced the 2023 Farm Robotics Challenge at FIRA USA 22! We look forward to co-hosting this event!

It is clear that automation and robotics will play an increasingly crucial role in agriculture. Not only in addressing the pronounced labor shortage in agriculture, but by creating new value creation opportunities related to resource efficiency, crop health, disease, harvesting and more. 

Thanks to Partners and Sponsors

All of us at The VINE extend our heartfelt thanks to attendees, partners, sponsors and UC ANR's Program Support Unit who made this event possible.

Our partners include FIRA, Western Growers, University of California, Merced, California State University, Fresno and the Fresno-Merced Future of Food (F3) Innovation Initiative.

Industry sponsors include Bluewhite, Carbon Robotics, CNH Industrial, Far West Equipment Dealers Association, Grimmway Farms, Keithly-Williams Seeds Inc., Robotics Plus, VARTA AG, and Sonsray Machinery, LLC.

Stay in the Loop!


Posted on Friday, October 28, 2022 at 1:43 PM
  • Author: Hanif Houston, Associate Director, Communications & Marketing for UC ANR's The VINE

UC ANR goes to Washington

The UC ANR group at the nation's capitol from left, Gabe Youtsey, Lucas Frerichs, Clare Gupta, Dina Moore, Bill Frost,Glenda Humiston, Lorrene Ritchie, Mike Mellano, Cher Watte and Wendy Powers.

“We visited offices of 26 of California's 55-member congressional delegation in two days!” said Lucas Frerichs, government and community relations manager. 

On March 6-9, a UC ANR delegation attended the 35th Annual Council on Agriculture Research, Extension and Teaching (CARET) meetings in Washington D.C. CARET is part of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU). They also made congressional visits to explain the importance of science and research to California.

From left, Humiston, Congressman Jimmy Panetta and Frerichs.
“Our primary purpose for the visits was to show the members of Congress all the good work UC ANR is doing throughout California, whether it's through our Cooperative Extension efforts, 4-H Youth Development program, nutrition programs, Integrated Pest Management, Master Gardeners, etc.,” Frerichs said, “and the value that Californians receive from the money Congress allocates to the university for UC ANR programs.”

Vice President Glenda Humiston was joined by AVP Wendy Powers, UCB College of Natural Resources Dean Keith Gilless, UCR College of Natural and Agricultural Sciences Dean Kathryn Uhrich, Nutrition Policy Institute Director Lorrene Ritchie, UC Cooperative Extension Specialist Clare Gupta, Chief Innovation Officer Gabe Youtsey, and Frerichs. Industry partners Bill Frost, former UC ANR AVP; Cher Watte, executive director of the California Asparagus Commission; Mike Mellano, fresh cut flower grower; Dina Moore, Humboldt County rancher; and Jean-Mari Peltier, managing partner of Environmental Solutions Group, served as CARET delegates from California.

The group split up into teams to visit the offices of Senators Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris, agriculture committee members, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Minority Leader of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi and other California representatives.

Although no U.S. secretary of agriculture had been confirmed at the time of their visit, members expressed their support for agriculture.

“One thing that members of Congress – Republicans and Democrats – can certainly agree on is that the support for agriculture and the University of California is strong,” Frerichs said.

Read more about the CARET visits in Powers' ANR Adventures blog

From left, Youtsey, Mellano, Congressman Eric Swalwell, Ritchie, Frost and Powers.

Names in the News

Mark Bell
Bell named Vice Provost–Statewide Programs/Strategic Initiatives

Mark Bell will join UC ANR on May 1 as Vice Provost–Statewide Programs/Strategic Initiatives position. Bell is director of the UC Davis International Learning Center, a position he has held since 2007.

In this newly created position, Bell will provide leadership for a unified UC ANR program with strong statewide, campus and local presences. He will oversee the California Institute for Water Resources, Nutrition Policy Institute, the five UC ANR Strategic Initiatives and the nine UC ANR Statewide Programs. In addition, he will coordinate the Division's participation in the UC Presidential Initiatives, including the Global Food, Innovation and Entrepreneurship, UC-Mexico and Carbon Neutrality initiatives.

“Mark's record of success working with international extension systems in the combined roles of manager and field researcher makes him the ideal choice to serve as Vice Provost–Statewide Programs/Strategic Initiatives,” said VP Humiston in announcing his hiring.

“UC ANR can benefit from his skills and experience in leveraging research-extension linkages, adult education and information technology for agricultural development,” she said. Prior to joining UC Davis, Bell, who speaks Spanish, worked for nine years at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in Mexico and 11 years at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines.

At IRRI, he led development of the Rice Knowledge Bank – the world's major repository for rice-oriented training and extension materials aimed to help developing countries. He is currently leading development of Ag ExtensioneAfghan Ag and e-China Apple at UC Davis International Learning Center.

As vice provost, he will serve on the UC ANR Program Council and collaborate closely with the Vice Provost of Cooperative Extension and the Director of the Research and Extension Center System. He will be located in the offices at 2801 Second Street in Davis.

Bell has a Ph.D. in soil science and bachelor's degree in agricultural sciences from the University of Queensland in Australia and a master's degree in soil science from the University of Reading, U.K.

Cassandra Swett
Swett joins UC ANR as UCCE specialist

Cassandra Swett joined UCCE on Jan. 2, 2017, as an assistant specialist in Cooperative Extension in the Department of Plant Pathology at UC Davis.

Prior to joining UCCE, Swett was an assistant professor and extension specialist at the University of Maryland, College Park, studying small fruit and grape diseases. Previously, Swett worked as a postdoctoral researcher with Doug Gubler, UCCE specialist in the Department of Plant Pathology at UC Davis.

Swett earned her B.S. in plant science from UC Santa Cruz, an M.S. in tropical plant pathology from the University of Hawaii, Manoa, and a Ph.D. in plant pathology from the Department of Plant Pathology at UC Davis.

Swett is located at 260 Hutchison Hall and can be reached at (530) 752-3377 and

Stephanie Parreira
Parreira joins UC IPM as writer/editor

Stephanie Parreira joined UC IPM as a writer/editor on Feb. 13. Parreira will develop new and evaluate existing publications and products such as the "Pest Management Guidelines," year-round IPM programs, online tutorials, videos, identification cards, and other training materials. She will also assist UC IPM's urban and community IPM team with training courses about the principles of integrated pest management for UC Master Gardeners and other extenders of pest management information.

As a graduate student, Parreira sought to fill five major research gaps in honey bee pesticide toxicology: effects on whole colonies, effects on nurse bees (the youngest adult bees in a honey bee colony, which do not leave to collect pollen and nectar), effects of long-term exposure to field-realistic concentrations of pesticides, pesticide interactions, and effects of exposure through multiple routes (such as nectar and pollen). Outside of her research, she took many opportunities to speak to the public about current problems in bee health and what people can do to help bees thrive. She became especially interested in working in extension because of these experiences.

Parreira earned a B.A. in environmental studies and planning with a minor in biology from Sonoma State University in 2013, and earned an M.S. in horticulture with a focus in entomology from Oregon State University in 2016.

Parreira is located at the ANR building in Davis and can be reached at (530) 750-1391 and

Michael Purnell
Purnell joins UC IPM as a programmer

Michael Purnell joined the Statewide IPM Program on Feb. 2 as a programmer.  He will be working on developing tools for the web that will enhance and add to the existing UC IPM products.  Some of these tools include improving and upgrading the plant problem diagnostics tool, IPM decision support tool, bee precaution pesticide ratings, and herbicide symptoms photo repository.

Before joining UC IPM, Purnell was a project manager and technical lead for Intel Corporation in Folsom, CA where he and his team developed code and designed technical diagrams to integrate Intel's administrative systems with third party on-premise and cloud solutions.

Purnell earned his B.S. and M.S. in computer science at North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University. 

Purnell is based at the ANR building in Davis, with the IPM IT/Production team, and can be reached at (530) 750-1248 and

Posted on Tuesday, March 21, 2017 at 11:06 AM

UC ANR invites legislators to Ag Day at the Capitol

Secretary of State Alex Padilla, second from left, stopped Lucas Frerichs and Meredith Turner in the Capitol hallway to discuss mandarins.

Ag Day at the Capitol was held in Sacramento on March 22. On Monday, March 20, Lucas Frerichs, Tyler Ash, Pam Kan-Rice and Meredith Turner of UC State Government Relations, visited the offices of all 120 legislators and the governor and lieutenant governor to invite them to visit the UC ANR booth at Ag Day. They handed out bags of UC-developed "Tango" mandarins, explaining that the seedless, easy-to-peel citrus variety is one of many California crops developed with UC ANR research.

We'll have more coverage of Ag Day at the Capitol in the next ANR Report.

To see Twitter coverage of Ag Day at the Capitol, look for the hashtags #CalAgDay and #growCAtogether.

From left, Ash, Frerichs, Assemblymember Cecilia Aguiar-Curry, Turner and Kan-Rice.
Posted on Monday, March 20, 2017 at 11:11 PM

FAQ on possible federal immigration enforcement actions on UC property

UC Office of the President has created a website for frequently asked questions on immigration enforcement actions.

Charles F. Robinson, UC general counsel and vice president of Legal Affairs, has issued the FAQ for members of the University of California community who are concerned about immigration enforcement actions occurring across the country and have asked about the possibility of enforcement actions occurring at UC. This document, published online at, answers questions and provides information about how to respond in such a situation. Please keep in mind that Department of Homeland Security policies are in transition and this guidance will be updated as warranted.

A PDF version of the FAQ is available at

The FAQ on immigration is also the first link under “Resources” on UC's Immigration website

Posted on Monday, March 20, 2017 at 7:09 PM

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