Farmers, FarmHers, And Falcons: 2019 World Ag Expo Has It All
Farmers donning boots and stetsons, marketing-types in polos: The 2019 World Ag Expo in Tulare has a good mix of both. You’ll also find trailers that self-load hay bales, and a so-called, “rugged phablet” - that’s short for phone-tablet - that can withstand being dropped in water. And there's ag groups galore: Future Farmers of America, American Dairymen, and one called FarmHer.
Marji Guyler-Alaniz is FarmHer’s founder and president. She had just left her job in crop insurance and was trying to decide what do next, when she saw a commercial during the 2013 Super Bowl. It included a poem read by Paul Harvey with moving depictions of farmwork.
“So I just saw it and I was like, this is amazing, right? This is beautiful,” Guyler-Alaniz says. “But where are the women? And not just in this commercial, but where are the women pictured anywhere in agriculture?”
This led Guyler-Alaniz to begin FarmHer, a photography project to share stories about women in agriculture. In the last five years, it’s grown. Now it encourages women and girls to pursue careers in farming.
“If you have someone who thinks that agriculture might be slightly interesting, or food is interesting, they could come,” Guyler-Alaniz says of FarmHer events. “You could be someone from any walk of life, and you would walk out of here feeling like, you got this.”
Guyler-Alaniz says you don’t just need a strong back to succeed, you also need a strong mind. Today, that means understanding technology and the Ag Expo is a good place to start.
“With labor costs going up, everyone’s trying to mechanize everything,” says Leah Groves, a vineyard manager from Fresno who attended the FarmHer breakfast. “So it’s kind of cool to see what other people are creating, what do other people see as the future.”
The future is in any one of six pavilions here. The Ag Expo is giant, with about 1,500 exhibitors, TV screens and posters everywhere. Turn a corner and you might see an electric tractor, or the latest Toyota pickup.
Apps that make farming easier are also big here. Want to automate your irrigation system? There’s an app for that. Do you want to track your equipment as it moves through your fields, without having to stand out there and watch? There’s an app for that.
There’s even an app just to get around the World Ag Expo itself.
There’s also apparently a market for less technology driven solutions, like falconry.
In one pavilion, you can meet Mr. Quiet. He’s a peregrine falcon who attended the event with Karl Kerster, a falconer from Sacramento. “I do bird abatement using falconry, scaring pest birds away from crops,” Kerster says.
It’s not just the birds that fly -- drones are also becoming popular among farmers. They can be used to spray pesticides, plant seeds, or monitor crops.
It’s this technology that excites Porterville farmer Bert Berra.
“There's a lot of things you can control with your cell phone now,” Berra says. “When my grandpa, way back when, was in the cotton business after they moved out here, they were still picking cotton by hand. So we've come quite a ways from since then.”
Berra is a fourth generation farmer. He says he feels pressure from the state to become more environmentally friendly and use fewer resources, like water and pesticides. But he does see the benefits.
“I think all of this technology is going to really come into play with saving the farmer some money,” says Berra. “Because it does make us more efficient.”
For the companies touting green, clean energy products, this is exactly the attitude they want. Take Zero Nox, for example. It’s a Porterville-based company that formed after the town made plans to bring in an electric bus manufacturing plant.
“The reality is, California is going electric,” says Vonn Christenson, CEO of Zero Nox. “It's inevitable that they're pushing vehicles to electric of all kinds and we're just thrilled to be really one of the first to the market with an electric forklift.”
Christenson says there is a learning curve to explaining electric forklifts; most farmers have used propane-diesel forklifts their whole lives. But he also says that with incentives from the state to adopt greener technology, and the potential savings in fuel, buying one could be worth it.
“The agriculture industry, it gets a bad rap in environmental circles, because they are large polluters,” says Christenson. “And the reality is, the agriculture industry needs to get green.”
For many farmers and ranchers in the San Joaquin Valley, visiting the 2019 World Ag Expo is one way to begin figuring out just how to “get green” themselves.