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Future of farming could begin with drones

STEVENSVILLE — The future of farming could begin with drones. Contestants from around the state gathered to give their final pitch to judges at the Grow & Fortify Value-Added Agriculture Summit. Held at the Chesapeake Bay Beach Club on Dec. 6, the summit was presented by the Rural Maryland Council and Mid-Atlantic Farm Credit.

Their premise — increasing and enhancing farm and food viability through diversification. An annual competition, the top agriculture entrepreneurs from across Maryland were offered the opportunity to present their ideas via a Shark Tank-style business competition. The contest is promoted yearly by AgPitch. The very popular event brought hundreds of attendees in their inaugural year, with AgPitch17.

The Grow & Fortify Summit is the final stop for the AgPitch finalists who competed for a $7,500 cash prize to help them launch their business, risk management services provided by North Central Insurance Agency, office space, and admission into the Saul Ewing Arenstein & Lehr’s Resources, Access, and Mentoring Program — with all finalists receiving cash prizes.

Employees from MADTECH recieve the AgPitch award at the Grow & Fortify Summit at the Chesapeake Bay Beach Club in Stevensville, MD.

Grow & Fortify is a Maryland based company working to cultivate an environment where value-added agricultural producers, operators, growers and start-ups innovate and thrive. This year was the first time the summit was held in Queen Anne’s County.

Narrowed down from the 30 that applied, the five finalists competing on Dec. 6 were:

• Marnane Agricultural Drone Technologies (MADTECH), which showcased its MADTECH System, which uses Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) to help farmers cut fuel, seed, fertilizer, and labor costs, capturing real-time farm data using sophisticated fixed wing drone technologies. MADTECH drones can cover up to 400 acres in one hour, saving farmers time and significantly increasing crop yields (up to 30 percent) over time. Data is coupled with rapid lab testing, targeted ground proofing, and prescriptions for farmers to enable an effective solution to test results. It is a low cost way for farmers to monitor their fields, said MADTECH founder Tom Marnane, with the value added benefit of suggesting additional uses for empty land such as bee pollination or solar panel arrays.

• 1000 EcoFarms, which pitched its software platform to help small farmers effectively market and sell their products using the web, social media, blockchain, and other modern technology. The platform allows small farmers to perform order and payment processing, inventory management, customer service tasks, and more. Essentially intended to be an app for phones, 1000 EcoFarms is what a farmers market could be — if more consumers could buy directly from farmers, said Mark Mason, founder of the Bethesda based start-up. His goal is to make more direct connections between farmers and consumers and provide a platform where farmers can register themselves for free and consumers can quickly locate fresh, local food sources.

• AgriMetis, which presented its patented technology to develop more sustainable crop protection products as farmers and the public look for more environmentally friendly crop protection solutions. Ronna Grossman-Schenker, senior director of finance with AgriMetis, said the company is focused on developing natural products, innovating the industry through biochemistry. Weed resistance and negative press have farmers switching from Glyphosate (Monsanto/Bayer Round-up). The current alternative, said Grossman, is expensive and surrounded by similar negative sentiment, with no other real competitors in market, AgriMetis wants to continue its development of natural products and sales of Glu-L, an affordable product with added environmental benefits.

• GreatAlga, another Maryland based start-up, which is dedicated to growing algae in bioreactors that will be used in livestock feed to produce a healthier animal. Growing algae in outdoor ponds can be inefficient and vulnerable to weather, but GreatAlga’s technology makes growing algae more efficient for the agricultural market. With research from Kansas State and the University of MD, over 6,000 lab tests have confirmed incorporating algae into animal feed rations creates better proteins. Consumers benefit from healthy meat and dairy products, and farmers produce a higher quality and quantity of product with the additive of algae.

• Johnny Oyster Seed, which presented its improved oyster farming system that makes deployment and retrieval of oyster cages more efficient, prevents marine fouling of oyster cages, and facilitates faster transporting and storage of oyster cages. Cylinders chained together, allow containers to be moved quickly and mechanically; and with the addition of software to document the handling of containers and record data, the system will help manage productivity, says founder Jon Farrington. With a half-million oysters potentially to be grown per underwater acre, there is the potential for $200,000 per acre profitability, he said, the opportunity for aquaculture is tremendous. Other devices are currently in use, but very antiquated, considering the potential to a one billion dollar industry in Maryland.

The competition was moderated by Andrew Rose, director of innovation, strategy and development, Mid-Atlantic Farm Credit. Rose guided the finalists as they made their final presentations to audience and judges.

Judges included: Jan Baum, founder and director of the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Towson University; Alex Moore, senior partner with Stratagon, and past-president of Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources and Related Sciences; Mike Thielke, executive director of the Eastern Shore Entrepreneurship Center; and Isvara Wilson, chief administrative officer of AgFirst Farm Credit Ban

Audience members were invited to participate in voting for their favorites following the presentations. The day-long summit moved into breakout sessions with topics on value-added agriculture, including innovation, emerging and potential markets, and sales channels and distribution. Between sessions, provided time for lunch and networking before the AgPitch 18 winners were announced.

Tom Truitt, CEO with Mid-Atlantic Farm Credit, gave his congratulations to all of the finalists.

“Your passion for your work show through,” said Truitt.

Although the ideas were each unique and addressed a wide range of concerns facing the ag industry there was an overwhelming response to this season’s winner, he said, MADTECH drones, the AgPitch18 winner.

“Hearing the pitches and learning about each organization has me certain that the future of the agriculture industry is in good hands. We’re excited for MADTECH and look forward to watching the business develop,” Truitt said.

Coming in second, was Johnny Oysterseed, followed by GreatAlga in third, then 1000 EcoFarms, and AgriMetis. MADTECH is already in talks with the state on how its product can be further useful and has 10 contracts pending. MADTECH, LLC is based out of Huntingtown and was founded by father-son team Tom and Zach Marnane.

“We are honored to have been chosen to present our business concept to the judges and audience of the 2018 AgPitch event,” said Tom Marnane, co-founder and president of MADTECH. “I am very confident in our technology and the opportunities it can bring to farmers in Maryland and across the country. We can’t thank Farm Credit enough for creating such a venue to allow agriculture companies like MADTECH to enhance our business and expand our impact.”

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