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Agtools Public Comments to USA Legislators



Recently, Agtools has had the opportunities to showcase the need for improved Specialty Crops data to the USDA's Fruit and Vegetable Industry Advisory Committee (FVIAC) and the Senate Agriculture Subcommittee on Food and Nutrition, Specialty Crops, Organics, and Research through submitted testimonies, which can be found here


Submitted Testimony for the Record


Senate Agriculture Subcommittee on Food and Nutrition, Specialty Crops, Organics, and Research


Horticulture Title: How the Farm Bill Works for Specialty Crop Producers


Martha Montoya - Founder and CEO

Agtools Inc.

June 7th, 2023


First, I want to thank Chairman Fetterman and Ranking Member Braun for the opportunity to submit these comments for the record regarding the state of specialty crops in the United States. While row crops (such as corn, wheat, and soy) are extraordinarily important in our agricultural economy, the importance of the specialty crop industry is rapidly coming into sharper focus. This is especially the case with the health and wellness trend across the country that emphasizes the consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables as part of a wholesome diet, as opposed to the consumption highly process grain-based foods and the multiplicity of dietary and health issues they generate, and the growing prevalence of and healthcare costs associated with these health issues.


Scale of the Fruit & Vegetable Industry – The specialty crop industry is large and rapidly growing. According to Grand View Research’s Market Analysis Report of 2022, the fruit and vegetable market was valued at $62 billion in 2021, and is “expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 5% between 2022 and 2030.” This is an enormous industry and I appreciate the USDA asking the industry itself for input on how to improve USDA’s programs and services to this important sector.


Keys Areas Needing Attention – Some of the key areas that I believe need to be addressed include: the rise of Big Data in agriculture; the strategic utilization of Plant Phenology to improve decision-making by food supply-chain stakeholders; the reliability of transportation systems and utilizing data to improve supply chain irregularities.


The Central Importance of Data – As the Founder and CEO of a data science company that focuses on specialty crops, and over 30 years working in the specialty crop industry, I suggest that the emergence of Big Data and the enormous data bases of information available on virtually every aspect of agriculture are keys to our understanding and support of this industry going into the future. The massive amounts of data available, and the speed at which decision-makers can access the data, makes it feasible for policy makers to anticipate and prevent blockages in transportations systems and supply chains.


What Can the Data Tell Stakeholders? – Whether its big data covering row crops, specialty crops, poultry, beef, pork and poultry, the main issues for stakeholders to look for are the geographic extensiveness of the data, and how far back the data goes. Does the data cover all growing areas of the world, or just the U.S.? Does the data cover a handful of years, or does the data go back 25 years or more. How extensive is the data? Does it cover millions of records, or billions of records?


Data Acquisition, Curation and Maintenance - Also critical of interest to stakeholders and the specialty crop industry is where data utilized by USDA and other government agencies is received (sources and intake) and analyzed and how the data is curated and maintained. This will help stakeholders understand how “clean” the data is and how much they can rely on it for their purposes.


What About Specialty Crops? - With respect to specialty crops, stakeholders will want to know if the data covers just a handful of fruits and vegetables, or does it cover all the major specialty crops grown throughout the world? How many variables does the data cover? Does the data cover just acreage planted, varieties planted, and fertilizers used? Or does it cover over 100 variables affecting agriculture production and marketing, such as: prices at point of origin, point of distribution, or price at retail; historical transportation costs; border closures; shipping blockages; exchange rates; host country holidays (affect transportation arrangements), etc. Having a good understanding of how comprehensive the Big Data is that the stakeholder is interested in accessing is essential to its effective use.


Weather Data - Weather, of course, is a key factor in agriculture all over the world. Does the Big Data system the stakeholder is interested in accessing provide comprehensive weather data? Does it include weather data from growing areas all over the world, or is it limited to a few geographical areas? Does the weather data span the last 25 to 50 years, or does it cover just the past few years? The more geographically comprehensive the data is, the better the inferences that can be drawn about weather in the stakeholder’s area of interest. The same holds true for the historical depth of the weather data – i.e., 50 years’ worth of data is far more valuable the three years of data.


The Micro Level - At the micro level, the data should be easily accessible to farmers and other stakeholders in the food supply chain. Ease of access makes it possible, for example, for growers to research how much farmers are planting in growing areas all over the world, what varieties they are planting, and what fertilizers they are using. That gives farmers key insights to strategize their planting season. The data gives them the ability to better time their planting and their harvests so as to improve their market strategies and enhance their profitability. These are just three of over 100 variables that stakeholders need to investigate to understand the international market.


The Macro Level - At the macro level, the data should enable stakeholders in the agriculture food chain to rapidly garner an understanding of what is happening world-wide with the crops that are of interest to them. Access to this type of data can support public and private buyers of specialty crops by making them more secure in their ability to procure the crops of interest at optimum prices and in a timely manner.


Multiple Modes of Access - All users in the supply chain – growers, buyers, planners, etc. – have unique requirements. Therefore, data needs to be served to them via systems that respond to each user’s preferences and with the necessary detail to satisfy multiple types of inquiries. Whether through web-based access portals, highly-tailored daily email reports, special-request studies, or integration with installed ERP/Procurement systems, the data from the Big Data platforms can be readily available to policy-makers to provide powerful insights to assist in the buying of volatile food categories.


Phenological Stages of Plant Growth – I would also like to encourage USDA to begin thinking more strategically about the use of Plant Phenology. USDA can apply its vast knowledge of the stages of plant growth – Plant Phenology – to enable supply chain stakeholders to have a better understanding of how crops are affected by multiple variables in the growth cycle.


As most of you know, phenology is the study of the stages in the biological life-cycle of plants. It’s typical, for example, for plants to have over 150 phenological phases in their growth to maturity. An understanding of plant phenology can reveal trends in crop productivity and market readiness around the world. Changes and variations in climate, especially increasing temperatures and/or diminished rainfall, greatly affect plant phenology. By studying the phenological phases of plant growth, it is possible to foresee the effects of drought, or higher than normal temperatures, well before reduced crop yields, or crop defects, become evident at harvest time.


Effects of Drought - Monitoring plant phenology can be a worldwide early warning system (like the proverbial canary in the coal mine). Such monitoring can alert growers (and other stakeholders in the food chain) to adverse effects of climate variations on plant growth. Drought conditions, for example, cause plants to start the budding process days later than normal. At that early stage, growers can tell that crop yields will be less than normal at harvest time, and can begin planning to find alternative sources for the desired quantities of crops.

Effects of Temperatures – Similarly, the flowering stage of plant development needs to fall within a certain temperature range for optimal growth. Flowering that falls outside of that temperature range will delay crop development. That will result in delays in harvesting and shipping, thus affecting an agribusiness' supply chain schedule. The phenological stages of crop growth can actually be monitored so that farmers and stakeholders throughout the food chain can anticipate the effects of weather variations on each year’s crops and modify their supply chain purchases and delivery schedules accordingly. Additionally, much of the current data around growing degree days (GDD) are optimized for commodities and row crops, meaning new datasets are needed to capture the impacts on specialty crops and specialty crop production.

Bridge Between Two Worlds – The strategic use of plant phenology can be a bridge between two worlds: 1) One world is the ability plant phenology gives farmers to understand variability in their production as a result of information derived from studying the stages of plant growth in the crops they plant each season; 2) The other world is the use of plant phenology to give buyers far better insights as to when harvests will be ready for markets, the volume of production, and the quality of the harvests. These insights can take pressure off corporate and military buyers by enhancing their ability to purchase their desired crops, at optimum prices, and to have them delivered in a timely manner.

Transportation - Regarding transportation, as we know, if stored properly, grains have a long shelf life. Especially crops, on the other hand, do not. Unlike grains, fresh fruits and vegetable cannot sit on ships in U.S. harbors more than a couple days at most before they begin to spoil and turn into waste. We need USDA to focus like a laser beam on preventing blockages in the supply chains and transportation systems that result in the spoilage and waste of our precious and perishable specialty crops.

Food Waste – The United Nations reports that about 33% of all food grown throughout the world is actually wasted. Not only is this food not consumed, but the disposition of it as waste is a major problem. Landfills are now the third largest source of methane gas emissions in the United States. Major improvements in data being utilized by our transportation systems and supply chains need to take place to reduce this vast food waste.

Supply Chain Complexity - As supply chains and distribution networks become more complex, buyers and all stakeholders throughout the food supply chain face persistent challenges when securing products at the quality and prices needed for profitability. For those tasked with procuring specialty crops – fruits, vegetables, nuts, spices, and florals – the challenge is ever greater because of the fast decay and associated waste of this fast-growing and dietarily-important category.


Procurement Challenges – Data can greatly enhance the procurement process and facilitate the movement of specialty crops up through the supply chain. Recognition of the difficult procurement environment facing corporate and military buyers calls for searching and adopting more insightful, crop-specific granular data. This data complements existing decision systems and assists buyers and contracting officers in understanding potential suppliers, vendors, and supplying regions from where to source product, while achieving the quality/price/delivery date requirements of the serviced consumers.


Data-Drive Procurement - Transformative, data-driven procurement tools are increasingly necessary to assist decision makers with daily judgement calls carrying sweeping ramifications for food safety, sustainability, and security. Anticipating supply shocks and minimizing sourcing disruptions - especially during risk spikes resulting from weather and shipping issues - can make or break food sourcing teams which rely on legacy analytical software.

Conclusion – I have focused on some of the needs and opportunities in the specialty crop industry. Accessing the vast amounts of agricultural data available in Big Data repositories can have a significant impact on the quality of decisions made by stakeholders throughout the food supply chain. Strategic use of Plant Phenology can make a significant contribution to anticipating crop yields and how that affects the movement of agricultural products throughout the supply chain. Maintaining supply chains and preventing breakdowns in transportation systems are key to preventing spoilage and waste.

Thank you for the opportunity to share these comments with the Subcommittee and look forward to fielding any questions or concerns you might have.


CONTACT:

Martha Montoya, CEO, AgTools

Scott Carter, President & Chief Strategy Officer, Conduit Government Relations

Will Thomas, MS, MPH, Managing Director, DC, Conduit Government Relations

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