Q&A with Peter Brice from Autogrow

We took a minute to chat with Peter when he was in Lincoln for our Innovation Breakfast Seminar Series. Here’s what he had to say about indoor vertical farming, automation and the future of New Zealand agriculture.

Hey Peter,  what is your background?

I’ve always been in the agriculture industry. My whole family pretty much studied at Lincoln (including me) and my father has worked in the horticulture industry for over 40 years – so I’m essentially carrying the flag for the family in that industry now.

I have worked on all sorts of farms in New Zealand, through vineyards, sheep and beef farms, arable crop farms, horticulture and dairy. In Australia I worked on a large scale arable farm and another large scale arable farm in Canada which was quite topical as they were growing in the much talked about yellow pea country.

When did your interest in agtech first start?

I got interested in agtech when I was working for Ravensdown where I was on a steering committee of (a now massive) tech project. That drummed up my interest in technology and agtech.

When I returned to NZ after some extended travel overseas I realised I wanted to work for a small company, ideally tech, that’s exporting. AutoGrow ticked all those boxes for me.

What does the future of NZ agriculture look like to you?

I’d love to say there are vertical farms everywhere, but realistically we’ll see a lot more protected cropping instead. Protected cropping includes glasshouses, greenhouses and polytunnels which protect the crops from the elements and controls their nutrients hydroponically and from the soil. There will also be a lot more focus on crop hygiene, traceability and blockchain technology.

Currently there are approximately 310 hectares that are protected – in the world there is about half a million hectares so we’re a pretty small drop in the ocean, and there’s plenty of application for it here, for example intensive lettuce growing, tomatoes and fruits.

One of the biggest hurdles in NZ (and around the world) is going to be the age of farmers. The average age of a farmer in the States is around 60 so that’s a big problem. But corporate farms will no doubt buy up these farms and they’ll become managed by people operating spreadsheets and creating efficiencies. That’s where the tech uptake will be.

Do you have any examples of vertical farms in New Zealand?

I do but there’s nothing I can talk about right now. There are pilot projects happening. The technology is currently not there for successful vertical farming as the energy costs are too high. For example, the light energy that goes into a vertical growing system, only 1% is used for plant biomass production, the rest is lost through heat. If you can increase that percentage slightly through more efficient LEDs then we’ll go a long way to increase production and economic viability in the farm. Technology is getting so much more efficient more quickly.

What’s your advice to a start-up vertical farming company?

I’d say start small and do your due diligence: Grow to a market, so in other words, make sure your market is there; think about how the crop is going to grow in vertical farm conditions; without data you’re driving without headlights; your imagination is your constraint basically. Take hops as an example. Hops have never been grown in a protected environment before, but if you go through Motueka now and you’ll see great structures, greenhouses, where hops are being grown. You can control everything to give the hops characteristics that craft beer makers are after.

And that’s where automation comes in?

Yes, automation – currently we are in the realms of automation but we want to move towards autonomy (i.e. artificial intelligence).

What agtech / tech / agriculture companies are you most excited about and why?

There’s too many name. Lighting companies like Philips are huge, have awesome tech and heaps of capital behind them. They’re going to make changes pretty quickly which is exciting. Any of the control companies like AutoGrow are not just limited to what you see – there’s a lot going on behind the scenes. The berry growers who are doing big things in protected cropping – they’re amazing. And finally, fruit marketing companies like MG Marketing, Fresh Max in Tauranga, Turners and Growers – wicked companies doing lots with global exporting.

One of the most talked about benefits of vertical growing is an increase crop production. Why focus resources into crop production when New Zealanders waste $2 billion worth of food every year? Should we be addressing food waste issues first and foremost?

Yes, definitely. The great thing about controlled and vertical farming is the ability to reduce waste in the early stage of the food production cycle. Going into a controlled, hydroponic environment you won’t have rain hitting the fruit and causing them to split. This means less waste.

Also, organisations like Food Bowl and Food South are finding markets for lower quality or damaged produce, i.e. freeze it, dry it, sell it as a superfood.

Tell us what an average day is like for you at Autogrow

I get to work at 7am and check messages from the States as well as support messages that have come through overnight. At 7.30am a workmate arrives and we have a coffee. We have an espresso machine and have a competition to see who can make the best coffee.

Because we are doing so much development I have a reasonable amount of meetings to attend. I like to contribute from a growers point of view and keep R&D on track. Because I deal in Australia and New Zealand, we have a lot of interaction with our resellers in those countries. I’ll receive orders, make sure they’re correct, place the order with the accounts team and ensures it lands where it should be. That’s the sales side of things.

I’m also trying to get new business so dealing with NZTE and looking at ways to open new markets. We have a grow room at the office which I manage with another guy and we keep the crops growing and looking good. There’s heaps going – in the meantime I’m also checking on marketing and offering opinions on product development. After work I head to the gym and play social sports.