The new tech players of the California drought

Farmer Mark Borba isn't looking to buy a shiny new tractor this year at the World Ag Expo in Tulare, California. He tends to some 9,000 acres of crops in the drought-stricken San Joaquin Valley, and about one-third of it will be pulled from production.

"I may wander around the grounds for an hour and see all the stuff that I'd like to buy, but no way am I buying anything," said Borba, who grows everything from almonds and garlic to lettuce, tomatoes and onions. "We're over-equipped because we've got equipment to farm 9,000 acres, and we'll probably farm less than 6,000 because of the drought."

The Expo, which runs through Thursday, is the world's largest outdoor farm machinery show. An estimated 100,000 people are expected to view the latest ag machinery and products from 1,500 exhibitors, including Deere, AGCO, Case IH.

But they're not alone: Nontraditional agricultural equipment firms are also on hand, showing off smart water technology, agricultural drones, dairy robotics and mechanized harvesting. Others, like AGCO, are among longtime equipment suppliers that are promoting new precision agricultural technology at the show.

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Robert Crain, AGCO's senior VP and general manager of the Americas, said the row crop machinery is the company's "biggest headwind now," while machinery tied to more robust livestock sector "is very, very good. The hay business, for example, and up until very recently, the dairy business, has been good for us."

Competition at the Expo is so fierce that there's talk about discounting this year, particularly for used tractors and combines.

"The used equipment has been flooding the market," said Charlie Pitigliano, who manages about 10,000 acres of farmland in the San Joaquin Valley. Pitigliano said the lower price of key row crops has led to some used machinery prices to decline by as much as 20 percent.

Pitigliano, who grows wheat, corn and wine grapes, also blames the drought for the softer used farm equipment market. "Farmers are not going to buy equipment if they can get by with what they have now," he said.

Boom for some companies

A John Deere 8600 tractor is displayed on opening day of the World Ag Expo on February 10, 2015 in Tulare, Calif.
Getty Images
A John Deere 8600 tractor is displayed on opening day of the World Ag Expo on February 10, 2015 in Tulare, Calif.

But the drought also has been a boom for companies selling technology tied to water efficiency and moisture-monitoring systems.

Canadian-based Hortau, which specializes in wireless, Web-based irrigation management systems, started ramping up its U.S. operations 1½ years ago—and already, the California market now represents approximately 75 percent of sales. Hortau sells a so-called tensiometer probe system, which it claims can save farmers up to 50 percent of water and improve fertilizer efficiency to root zones.

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"A year ago, things were rough because farmers were focused on finding the water, punching more wells, and doing water deals with neighbors and things," said Joe Wiegand, a Hortau sales representative. "Now everyone's telling me, 'I'm ready to look at the technology and be water efficient and conserve that investment that I spent all that money on.'"

Netafim USA, a supplier of smart drip and micro-irrigation equipment to the agriculture market, is at the show and introducing a new flexible pipeline positioning system that helps growers spend less on infrastructure. "The technology is affordable, and the return on investment is almost immediate," said Ze'ev Barylka, director of ag sales for Netafim.

The latest in ag drone technology also is displayed. The drones allow farmers to create aerial maps to locate soil stress and plot irrigation systems and create more efficient use of water, fertilizer and pesticides.

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"We create new knowledge you didn't have before," said Mark Hull, owner of All Drone Solutions, a start-up in Exeter, California. "The drone costs a small amount compared to what you can save."

The drone space is one of the hottest areas of investment today for ag tech investors, according to Rob Leclerc, co-founder and CEO of AgFunder, an online platform for investors looking to get into the food and agriculture technology sector. He said the ag drone space saw $82 million of investment last year, led by $25 million in funding going to Airware.

Leclerc said ag tech funding is coming from venture capital based in the Silicon Valley, as well as the VC arms of big ag companies, plus private equity funds and sovereign wealth funds from Europe and Asia.

"We still have what you'd call a lot of smart money in the space," said Leclerc. "Globally, everyone understands the importance of food and food security and the role that technology will play to take that forward."