Crowds turn out to see latest in farm tech

Crowds turn out to see latest in farm tech

Visitors to the FIRA USA robotics expo in Salinas watch a demonstration tractor as it hauls a Verdant Robotics system that can be deployed for spraying agricultural fields. The Sept. 19-21 event showcased autonomous and robotics solutions for agriculture.

Photo/Richard Green/FIRA USA

Visitors at FIRA USA in Salinas watch demonstrations of a remote-controlled tractor by Agtonomy.
Photo/Richard Green/FIRA USA<


Visitors at FIRA USA in Salinas watch demonstrations of farming robotics from Naïo Technologies.
Photo/Richard Green/FIRA USA


By Caitlin Fillmore 


The autonomous agriculture industry—with plenty of people watching from the sidelines—came from around the world to the Salinas Sports Complex last week to meet the farm robots of today and tomorrow.

The Sept. 19-21 FIRA USA gathering, which drew 1,500 people, matched agricultural technology inventors with growers and venture capitalists. It featured researchers and graduate students from around the world presenting their findings in “Lightning Talks.” It drew crowds for farm technology demonstrations, including a farm robot parade.

For nearly a decade, the Salinas Valley has taken a leading role pioneering agricultural technology and collaboration.

In 2015, Forbes magazine began hosting its AgTech conference in downtown Salinas, down the street from the future location of the Western Growers Center for Innovation and Technology that would open later that year. The center provides a hub for growers and agricultural technology firms to meet and collaborate—a similar mission of FIRA.

“Technology is coming at us at a blistering pace. We have the right people at the right time working on the right things, transforming agriculture in California for the next 100 years,” said Gabriel Youtsey chief innovation officer for the University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources.

The grand prize winner in the event’s Farm Robotics Challenge 2023 was Amiggie, a crop harvesting robot created by students at UC Davis. Contestants in the challenge showed off their innovative implements designed to fit the Watsonville-based firm farm-ng’s Amiga robot.

Investors and tech companies were also represented, with attendees arriving from Japan, New Zealand, Israel, India, France and across the U.S. A Shark Tank-like pitching session awarded San Luis Obispo’s TRIC Robotics with the grand prize from a group of 12 hopeful startups.

The FIRA conference was held in a partnership between Western Growers, UC ANR and the Global Organization for Agricultural Robotics. GOFAR is a French nonprofit founded in 2016 to organize FIRA USA, located in California since 2022, and World FIRA in France. FIRA stands for International Forum for Agricultural Robotics.

The 400-foot long California Rodeo Salinas grounds served as impromptu acreage for robot demonstrations. Last year’s FIRA, held in Fresno, featured technology demos at a separate location from conference display booths, accessible by shuttle bus.

Adi Schechter, marketing director for the autonomous technology company Bluewhite, said the spontaneity allowed by FIRA 2023 improved upon last year’s event. Bluewhite, based in Israel with U.S. headquarters in Fresno, offers kit attachments for a farm’s existing fleet of vehicles that provide autonomous solutions for harvesting, mowing and spraying.

Schechter said the event was able to address safety concerns for operating robots near crowds while also providing attendees a closer look at demonstrations than past events. In Salinas, Schecter said, companies were able to join potential clients on short walks “just around the booth and show the machine in action.” She said the change “has made a big difference.”

Robotics Plus Chief Commercial Officer Nathan Soich identified the narrow focus of FIRA 2023 as a selling point. The conference largely included autonomous topics and technology relevant to specialty crops such as lettuce, brassicas and winegrapes popular in the greater Salinas Valley region.

New Zealand-based Robotics Plus manufactures an unmanned ground vehicle with the ability to attach different implements, such as a sprayer, primarily for use in vineyards and orchards. The nascent company’s focus is on California and Washington state. Soich said he will spend additional time after FIRA visiting potential customers after connecting with “a few” by day two of the conference.

About 30% of FIRA attendees were growers. This is a 10% increase from 2022, said Gwendoline Legrand, co-director of GOFAR. Providing a conference catered to the growing region of the host location is the strategy for attracting growers, she said.

“Everything in here is relevant,” Legrand said. “That’s why we’re traveling around California. It’s about the right needs and the right farmers.”

Attracting more farmers to FIRA remains one of the conference’s priorities. A repeated idea across FIRA sessions encouraged investors and inventors to “speak the same language” as farmers and solve growers’ everyday problems in a logical order. Some suggested better communication is still needed.

“Does this work for real growers?” asked Mojtaba Ahmadi, senior production automation engineer at the California Strawberry Commission. “We’re not connecting dots between automation investments across the life cycle of the plant.”

Barden Produce’s Nathan Clackson and Rohan Drummond spent nearly $10,000 to attend FIRA, traveling from Australia for the event. They said labor costs and shortages in Australia, in which 60% of farm labor comes from backpackers visiting the country, attracted the pair to FIRA.

“We’ve known we need to do things differently but don’t know how to achieve it,” Clackson said.

“I thought we were just stuck with some of our problems,” said Drummond on FIRA day two. “Now we can see how the industry will change. It gives us a bit of a head start.”

Clackson said he was disappointed more farmers didn’t attend. “We really wanted to speak to farmers. (FIRA) is for the tech industry, not for farmers,” he said.

However, Clackson came away considering investment in the Philadelphia-based Burro, a harvest-assist platform, conveyor or row-to-row mobility vehicle that can be upgraded with modular autonomy packages to tow and carry thousands of pounds. Clackson said the technology may replace a person whose primary job is to stack boxes of brassicas and lettuce on his 2,000-acre farm near Queensland.

“Side by side, there are a lot of guys choosing different ways for the same problem,” Clackson said. “It was more eye-opening than I thought it would be.”

(Caitlin Fillmore is a reporter in Monterey County. She may be contacted at

Permission for use is granted. However, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation