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From Robots to Nano-Nutrients, Southwest Utah Summit Explores Farming Innovations

By David Condos

Farming is hard work, especially in places without much water. That’s why a global summit at Utah Tech University — START AgriTech — is focused on making that job a bit easier and more sustainable.

The idea is to bring together eleven startups, from as far as Australia and Argentina, to share how emerging technologies could help make agriculture more resilient in dry regions. This is especially vital as places like Utah look to a future with continued water scarcity, climate change and desertification.

“Necessity is the mother of all innovation,” said Or Haviv, a partner at investment firm Arieli Capital, which collaborated with Utah Tech to put on the event. “The world we live in today brings farmers to challenges that they never expected.”

Haviv, who’s based in Israel, is also managing director of the FrontierAgriTech Innovation Center, an agricultural research hub that uses tools like automation and data analytics to grow food near Israel’s Negev Desert.

In order to tackle the big global challenges that impact our food chain, he said the world’s dry places need to collaborate to share research and see what they can learn from each other.

“Building an innovation bridge that connects the assets from the Negev Desert with the Utah Tech facilities here creates the perfect storm, the perfect platform to innovate.”

While this is the first event of its kind at the university, it’s a natural extension of the school’s push to focus on desert technology, said Wyatt Anderson, business resource center manager with Utah Tech University’s Atwood Innovation Plaza.

Desert tech, which can encompass everything from water conservation to renewable energy to sustainable construction, will be one of the pillars of the university’s forthcoming 183-acre Desert Color Campus innovation district on the southern edge of St. George. And Anderson said it’s vital to the future of life in southwest Utah.

“As we explore ways to be more sustainable in desert living, agritech is going to play a huge role in ensuring we innovate and implement the right technologies so that our kids can live in this beautiful place we call home.”

Anderson grew up on a family farm in Sevier County, so he understands the challenges the state’s producers face. Being a farmer means taking risks every season, he said, but adopting new forms of technology can take some of the gamble out of it.

“They don't know what Mother Nature's gonna throw. They don't know how the seeds are gonna take. So a lot of this agritech stuff is to monitor what is needed to ensure that crop’s success.”

That could mean conserving water by improving soil health or using precision agriculture tools like soil moisture monitors, variable irrigation sprayers and data software to apply water more precisely to each part of a field.

Another emerging buzzword in agricultural tech, Anderson said, is generative AI — monitoring crop growing conditions in real time and making predictions on how crops will respond under various future meteorological scenarios. The idea is to make better decisions as things are happening.

The new ideas coming from the 11 startups run the gamut.

Two of the companies are based in Utah: Desalination startup Eden Technologies is developing centrifuge technology to wring more freshwater from saltwater, and Bactelife creates nano nutrient products aimed at improving soil health and boosting farmland water conservation. Others include companies developing movable solar panels that shade crops and robots that tend to greenhouse plants.

By the end of the summit, they’ll all get the chance to meet with international investors who could help bring their ideas to more farms. All the new ideas and investment dollars in the world won’t make much difference if farmers aren’t on board to implement the tools, though.

At its core, Haviv said, farming is still a tradition often passed down through generations, and there are generational barriers to tech adoption. At his family’s farm in Israel, for example, it would have been nearly impossible to get his grandfather to buy in and change the way he managed his land.

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