It’s game-changing technology that could revolutionize an industry and cut costs by hundreds of millions of dollars.
Yet it’s not being developed in Silicon Valley — more like Hidden Valley.
Gary Wishnatzki, third generation owner of Wish Farms in Plant City, is about to test a prototype robotic strawberry harvester that will automate the picking process for the first time ever. It’s a concept so bold, even his competitors have handed him money to invest in its research and development.
No one should be surprised, Wishnatzki says. Farms always have been far more than tractors, old pickup trucks and simple living.
“The machine we’re working on mimics human pickers,” Wishnatzki says. “We have a commercially viable concept, and all the patents filed. It’s an approach no one else has taken.”
Although he grew up on the farm, Wishnatzki always has been fascinated with technology. And after he took over Wish Farms in 1990 from his father and uncle, Wishnatzki embarked on merging the electronic world with the organic at the massive strawberry and blueberry grower.
A decade ago, for example, Wishnatzki founded VirtualOne. The technology company developed FreshQC, an electronic tracking system that traces a strawberry’s journey from plant to grocery store shelf, in 2008.
“We do it for food safety, but we found other uses for that kind of data as well,” Wishnatzki says.
FreshQC has since evolved into “How’s My Picking,” where customers can go online and enter a 16-digit code found on their strawberry package and leave feedback straight to the actual picker. The codes also help Wish Farms track productivity from the fields and delivery to stores nationwide, including Publix locations in the Southeast.
“Part of the way you survive is that every so many generations, you just have to reinvent yourself,” Wishnatzki says. “A lot of businesses fall into that death spiral where they are in a rut, or think things are going to be profitable because it’s the way your father or grandfather used to do it.
“It doesn’t have to work that way. You have to see trends, stay with the time, and recognize what’s going on around you.”
Lack of sentiment
Seeing trends is an attribute not exclusive to Wishnatzki. Since its founding in 1922 on the streets of New York City, Wish Farms has continually evolved.
Harris Wishnatzki, a Russian immigrant, sold fruits and vegetables from a pushcart in New York where, according to the family’s history, he met another pushcart peddler, Daniel Nathel. The two rapidly grew their pushcart fleet, forming Wishnatzki & Nathel at the height of the Roaring ‘20s.
Wishnatzki relocated to Florida in 1929 to oversee the produce shipping operation in Plant City. He also helped open the market for year-round fruit availability, even during cold New York winters.
Harris died in 1955, and sons Joe and Lester Wishnatzki took over. Gary Wishnatzki joined his father and uncle in 1974, and Wishnatzki & Nathel ultimately purchased its own farms in Florida, finding land in both Hillsborough and Manatee counties.
“Growing up, I knew my dad worked a lot of hours, and he worked very hard during the season,” Wishnatzki says. “I used to come over on the weekends when I was in school, and he would put us to work.”
Wishnatzki has fond memories of those days. But he doesn’t dwell on them.
“You can’t be sentimental about business,” he says. “I try to make good business decisions, and not base things on sentimentality. You can’t, especially with a business this old.”
Wishnatzki demonstrated that in 2001, when he negotiated a split with the family’s longtime partnership with Daniel Nathel’s descendants. The two separate companies would split up the New York and Florida operations, allowing Wishnatzki to focus more on growing and shipping.
Today, Wish Farms operates 2,500 acres of farmland in six states and three countries, and works closely with independent farmers on 1,000 more. Florida farms are busy virtually all year, growing not just strawberries, but blueberries, bell peppers, cucumbers for pickles, and grape tomatoes.
In a good year, Wish Farms can produce more than 30 million pounds of strawberries from farmland in both Florida and California, keeping it fresh between November and July.
Picking strawberries, however, is expensive.
And even in 2015 it requires men and women in the field, choosing which strawberries are ready to pick, and which ones will need to wait a little longer.
“You have to figure that we need at least one picker per acre in order to keep up with the fields,” Wishnatzki says. “But since a lot of people don’t work full weeks anymore, you now have to figure about one-and-a-half people per acre.”
Payroll costs can be staggering, even at the federal median earnings of less than $19,000 per year for a farm worker. To wit: minimum staffing for an 800-acre farm — like the one in Manatee County the company sold last year and leased back — could cost Wish Farms more than $15 million annually.
That’s where technology can help, Wishnatzki says. He’s joined forces with former Intel mechanical engineer Bob Pitzer of 4FX Design in Tampa to develop the prototype strawberry picker.
Wishnatzki is scant on details when it comes to the machinery. But he does share that onboard sensors can detect when strawberries are ready to pick, and then package the fruits on the spot.
For people familiar with the agriculture industry, the use of technology is the norm, not an exception.
“That’s one thing we see a lot — agriculture actually being the first to market for a lot of technologies we’ll eventually find everywhere else,” says Melissa Tilney, marketing head of venture capital marketplace AgFunder. “We see driverless tractors being used long before driverless cars hit the market. Some farms already have found uses for drones, well ahead of companies like Amazon trying to implement them for shipping.”
AgFunder started in 2013 to connect investors and farm innovators, Tilney says. The San Francisco-based company has so far helped raise $2.3 billion for research and development, not just from traditional agricultural investors, but some new players as well.
“There is this fresh group of investors who may not be versed in agriculture, but they know what the value chain looks like,” Tilney says. “We spend a lot of time educating them in the beginning, but once they see how their investment is doing, they catch on really quickly.”
Leaving a legacy
Wishnatzki found his own investors from other strawberry growers throughout the country. He raised $1 million in the first round of angel funding, and $1.5 million in a second. He is working now on a third and final round that should raise another $1.5 million for the project. He didn’t share names of the seven primary investors.
“We originally planned on using this just for us, something that would give us an edge over everyone else,” Wishnatzki says. “But the further we got into this, the more we realized how much it could change everything.”
Once the machines go into production, Wishnatzki and his investors will lease the equipment to farmers. Charges will be based on the machine’s production. That will allow Wishnatzki to upgrade machines whenever necessary, and keep a steady flow of revenue from the innovation.
That’s good for Wishnatzki, who recently welcomed the fifth generation of his family into the world. “He’s an innovator, and he’s a risk-taker,” says Amber Kosinsky, Wish Farms’ director of marketing. “He’s got people here who are willing to butt heads with his ideas. But when he believes in something, he’s doing it.”
Farming for the future
AgFunder helped connect investors and the agriculture industry with $2.3 billion in venture capital last year. The top sectors getting funding:
Bioenergy $374 million
Food e-commerce $370 million
Soil and crop tech $314 million
Sustainable protein $200 million
Biomaterials/biochemistry $177 million
Indoor agriculture $175 million
Waste mitigation $154 million
Decision support tech $129 million
Smart equipment/hardware $125 million
Drones and robotics $119 million