The winning team at a recent Apps for Ag Hackathon created "Ag for Hire" to help match farm laborers with small farms.
The winning team at a recent Apps for Ag Hackathon created "Ag for Hire" to help match farm laborers with small farms.

Technology can come from unlikely places. At least, that’s what the University of California, Davis is betting on.

The university recently hosted a recurring competition called the Apps for Ag Hackathon. By design, it brought together groups of people from very different backgrounds. Farmers, food science students, UC Davis faculty, software developers, engineers and others participated in the event, which focused on precision irrigation and nutrient management.

The hackathon’s process is as important as its participants, explains Josette Lewis, associate director of the World Food Center at UC Davis and food policy working group leader of the UC Global Food Initiative.

“It is important to have a spectrum of different expertise, but you can’t just put a farmer and a Microsoft executive in a room together and expect results,” Lewis says.

Speaking of results, these competitions have led to several new high-tech tools, including:

  • Ag for Hire, an online marketplace that helps match farm laborers with small farms.
  • CropRescue!, a platform that allows farmers and food banks to communicate better for more efficient excess food donation.
  • GreenThumb, a field-level task tracker so farmers, advisers and others can better track, assign and document field tasks.
  • Central Coast Coordination, which helps farmers coordinate complex field activities by blending together a calendar, communication features and maps.
  • Turbo Compliance, a web app that auto-fills compliance documents and does other calculations in the background.
  • Agripedia, a Wikipedia-type tool that will help farmers in the developing world learn more about modern ag techniques and management practices.

Some of the teams may eventually commercialize these tools, Lewis says. She adds that companies like AT&T and Microsoft are increasingly interested in agriculture even if it’s not among their current core competencies.

“They want to know how they might position their technologies in agriculture,” she says.

The ultimate goal of the hackathons is twofold, Lewis says. The ag tech tools that get developed make the hackathons worthwhile, but she also sees the events as a recruiting tool for the agriculture industry.

“We hope it creates visibility and enthusiasm for new people to come into the ag tech sector,” she says.

Bridging the gap between the agriculture industry and the tech sector is an area of emphasis for Lewis’ work on behalf of the UC Global Food Initiative. In addition to ag and tech, the UC Global Food Initiative also works to raise awareness of food policy research by providing stipends for specific areas of study, sponsors programs for professional development and funds research.

Apps for Ag hopes to plan additional hackathons in other locations across California. For more information, visit www.apps-for-ag.com/.

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