The VINE Blog

VINE Insider Insights: Vonnie Estes

by | April 5, 2024

In our chat with Vonnie Estes, Vice President of Innovation for the International Fresh Produce Association (IFPA), we explore her evolution from a deep interest in biology to a role where she merges technology with agriculture to address urgent challenges like climate change and labor shortages. At IFPA, Vonnie focuses on introducing new technologies to improve sustainability and efficiency in the produce industry. Estes also discusses the significance of supporting women in agriculture, drawing from her own experiences to highlight the need for greater inclusivity and opportunities for women in the field. Her approach combines a practical understanding of agricultural challenges with a commitment to progress and equity, reflecting a career dedicated to making a meaningful impact in agriculture.

Could you share your journey in agricultural, food and biotech innovation? Please explain what IFPA is, your specific role within the organization, and what inspired you to follow a career path in this field.

Okay, I’ll start with a bit of background that ties together my journey from an interest sparked in high school to where I am today. My father was in the Air Force, so we moved around a lot, exposing me to diverse environments and subjects of study; but it was in high school where I developed a profound interest in biology. I was fascinated by how things worked from a biological perspective, taking every biology course available in my small-town high school.

I received a scholarship to New Mexico State for my undergraduate studies, originally intending to major in biology. However, due to scheduling conflicts, I found myself unable to enroll in any biology classes as a freshman. In what seemed like a twist of fate, my longstanding interest in plants and gardening—having always had a garden and been passionate about growing things—guided me towards horticulture instead. It was through my horticulture classes that I truly fell in love with the science and biology of growing crops. This passion led me to pursue an undergraduate degree in horticulture before heading to Davis to explore a Ph.D. in genetics. Throughout my research, I discovered that my passion wasn’t in the research itself but in the application of that research. This realization led me to “master out,” leaving Davis with a master’s degree, eager to apply technology in the real world.

My fascination with discussing technology and exploring its practical uses kickstarted my career over 30 years ago when I joined a startup named DNA Plant Technologies. This experience was akin to a mini-MBA, teaching me the ins and outs of commercializing a product under the guidance of an exceptional CEO. This opportunity paved the way for my path in commercializing agricultural technology, with a recurring theme in my career being the pursuit of growing more with less—striving for sustainability. I’ve had the privilege of working with large companies like Monsanto, Syngenta, and DuPont, as well as numerous startups and venture capitalists, covering various aspects of agriculture and the commercialization of ag technology.

Later, I was with Caribou Biosciences, focusing on commercializing CRISPR technology for agriculture, until the company decided to license this technology to Corteva. After leaving Caribou, I spent some time consulting before being approached by a former colleague from DNA Plant Technologies, who introduced me to the world of trade associations—a sector I had never considered. Initially skeptical, my perspective changed after meeting with the CEO and the chief marketing officer of the International Fresh Produce Association (IFPA). They were two impressive women with substantial backgrounds. Over several months, I came to see the value in the role and decided to join the IFPA.

The IFPA is a global member-based organization that serves the entire produce industry, from crop inputs like those from Bayer Crop Science to growers such as Driscoll’s and Taylor Farms, through to the supply chain and retailers like Walmart and Food Lion. My role, a new one within the organization, focuses on leveraging technology to address the industry’s significant challenges. I work on introducing new technology, fostering adoption, and educating our members on emerging trends like AI, thereby covering all things tech related to the produce industry.

Given your role at IFPA, could you outline some of the top systemic challenges currently facing the industry? Additionally, what do you consider the key innovation priorities to address these challenges?

Climate change is the biggest challenge we face, manifesting in numerous ways, including rising temperatures, unprecedented weather events, and shifts in agricultural zones. It significantly impacts how and where we grow our crops, and where we will be able to in the future as areas experience flooding. Last year, for example, here in Northern California, floods delayed people from getting into the fields, prompting questions about how to adapt.

Secondly, the shifting demographics pose a labor challenge. The availability of labor, particularly in the produce sector, is dwindling. Unlike grain crops, which benefit from mechanization, produce requires delicate handling—like how carefully one must handle a strawberry to avoid damage. Therefore, labor scarcity is a pressing issue.

Turning back to climate change, a plethora of technologies are in development to combat these challenges. Breeding, for example, stands out to me. By predicting climate changes, we can determine what traits future crops will need—be it drought tolerance, heat resistance, or fewer freezing days. Techniques like CRISPR allow us to breed plants more efficiently, producing varieties better suited to changing conditions.

Moreover, AI, particularly generative AI, serves as a predictive tool, helping us anticipate significant climate events and adapt our cultivation strategies accordingly. The application of generative AI in agriculture could significantly mitigate the impacts of climate change.

In terms of reducing the progression of climate change, examining the chemicals used in agriculture reveals opportunities for improvement. There’s a shift towards biologicals and other technologies like peptides that have a lesser environmental footprint. Even rotating these with traditional chemicals could yield better outcomes.

Regarding labor, automation is making strides, particularly in thinning and weeding, which are simpler to automate than harvesting. Advanced technologies in these areas, alongside emerging innovations in automated picking and harvest assists like robotic wheelbarrows, are starting to reduce our reliance on manual labor.

Given your extensive background in the first wave of biofuels, what is your perspective on the evolution towards Sustainable Aviation Fuel, or biofuels 2.0? How do you assess its potential impact and the challenges it faces in comparison to earlier biofuel initiatives?

I worked for 10 years in biofuels in cleantech. During my time, I was convinced that corn was not the right feedstock for biofuels; it just didn’t make sense. Instead, we focused on second-generation feedstocks like corn stover or agricultural waste to produce biofuels for cars, which was the project I led at DuPont.

The collapse of biofuels 1.0 primarily occurred because of the newfound accessibility to oil via fracking, which drove the price down significantly. Our models were based on oil at $80 a barrel, but it dropped to around $50, making our projects financially unviable.

Moreover, the shift towards electrification offered a more suitable solution for cars and trucks, marking considerable progress in the last decade with fleet electrification. Although this momentum seems to have slowed, I expect it will pick up again. However, aviation poses a unique challenge to electrification; it’s not feasible because frequent charging is impractical for flight operations, meaning a fleet can’t run on electrification alone. By the end of biofuels 1.0, it was becoming clear that aviation was a market that couldn’t be ignored, with companies like Jivo already focusing on aviation fuels even 10 to 20 years ago.

Given this background, I see aviation as the prime market for biofuels going forward. There’s a critical need to reduce the aviation industry’s fuel consumption through cleaner, more sustainable methods. The government and private sector have invested heavily in biofuels research, creating a foundation of technology that can significantly improve aviation fuels.

While the future of biofuels in cars, aside from the ethanol additive we currently have, seems limited, I believe there’s a bright future for biofuels in aviation.

Reflecting on successful agricultural startups, what common traits or strategies have you observed that contribute to their success?

The biggest thing is ensuring that you’re solving an actual problem; you have a solution to a problem, essentially achieving product-market fit. It’s about truly solving something significant, not just coming up with an idea for an app without a real need behind it. Then, it’s important to have a diverse team. While it’s great to have highly intelligent computer science or MIT-trained engineers, incorporating someone knowledgeable about agriculture is key. Following that, you should test your solution in the field immediately to confirm you’re genuinely solving the problem you believe exists, rather than just assuming your perception aligns with reality.

The biggest downside I’ve observed is developers creating something that nobody really wants. In the accelerator I run, we bring in 12 companies annually from outside the industry. We put them through a program that includes an immersion week where they visit farms and directly engage with those facing the challenges they aim to solve. Often, these companies, including startups, realize during this week that their product doesn’t integrate well with current practices or is solving a problem that’s not a priority for their target audience, making it unlikely they’ll gain the traction they anticipated.

That’s the most important lesson right out of the gate: ensuring your solution meets a critical need and is validated by those who face the problem.

Considering the evolving landscape, what trends or research areas in agriculture, food and biotech do you believe are ripe with opportunities for startups and investors?

It’s a hard question for me because I’m in a unique position. There are technologies worth investing in, breeding being chief among them. Breeding technology holds a lot of promise in addressing many of our agricultural challenges. However, I would caution a VC against investing in it, just as I would advise most startups to avoid it. The entities that should be focusing on breeding are major companies like Bayer Crop Science, Corteva, Syngenta, and FMC. Breeding doesn’t suit the VC investment model; it’s slower than other ventures, even though it has sped up over time. 

Then there’s automation, a field littered with attempts that have failed, creating what could be termed an “automation graveyard.” This area might benefit from investments that are more patient and long-term.

The application of Artificial Intelligence (AI) is a double edged sword. It seems every new application for my accelerator claims to leverage AI. Mineral, a company under Alphabet, is a noteworthy example of applying AI in agriculture. They’re not a startup in the traditional sense but are pioneering in how they approach treating each plant individually based on extensive data analysis. Technologies that support such innovations are important.

Biologicals are another significant area of interest. I’ve worked with three generations of biologicals in my career, and I’m optimistic about their potential this time. Improved measurement tools enable us to better understand their impact, distinguishing between effective and ineffective solutions. In the past, evaluating biologicals’ efficacy was challenging due to numerous variables. With modern tools, we can analyze factors such as nitrogen uptake, providing clearer insights into their performance. This improved understanding enhances the prospects of biological solutions gaining traction in the market.

What initiatives or changes would you suggest to ensure more inclusive representation and support for women in the agriculture and biotech sectors? If you could make a bold request to the universe to help solve this issue, what would it be?

I don’t know how this will be received, but from what I’ve observed in my career, initiatives aimed at hiring and promoting more women genuinely work. We no longer face a pipeline issue; there are more women graduating from agricultural schools than ever before. The issue isn’t about supply; it’s deeper than that.

The real problem is a fundamental, systemic one. Women are getting into these companies, but then they find themselves excluded. Despite Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives, which I’ve recently been involved with, the effort falls short when it comes to actual inclusion and equity. Companies might succeed in hiring women, but without true inclusion and mentorship—either formal or informal—these women struggle to ascend to higher ranks within the organization, a situation most prevalent in large companies.

While I’m aware that some companies in the agricultural sector are making strides in this area, the overarching results speak volumes: there aren’t enough women in senior positions, indicating a significant disconnect.

To address this, there might need to be legislation, or companies should integrate specific mandates into their bylaws, creating not only a demand but also a requirement for the hiring and promotion of women. It’s about ensuring that women are not only brought on board but are also given equal opportunities to thrive and lead.

Can you talk about a woman who has inspired you in your field, and how women’s contributions can be better recognized and supported in agriculture and biotech?

This is an interesting question because, for most of my career, there simply weren’t any female mentors available. At this year’s World Agri-Tech Innovation Summit, I attended a Women in AgTech breakfast where I was invited to speak on this very topic, including the impact of women on my career.

Reflecting on this, I realized that when people asked me about female mentors or women who inspired me in my career, my response was that there weren’t many—at times, there weren’t any at all. This lack of female mentorship isn’t as much of a problem today, but it certainly was during the earlier parts of my career. Despite this, I surrounded myself with a council of women who, although they were mostly my peers or even people who worked for me, provided tremendous support.

However, I would like to highlight a few women who, if not throughout my entire career, have been significant figures more recently. One is Cathy Burns, the CEO of IFPA. Over the past five years working with her, I’ve witnessed our organization, and Cathy herself, undergo remarkable growth, especially as we merged with another organization and expanded significantly. Cathy’s leadership, particularly her commitment to DEI and her efforts to transform an industry that has traditionally been resistant to such changes, has been incredibly inspiring. There was a moment when Cathy and I, along with some others, were in a meeting with a world leader. The way she navigated that discussion—with fierceness, compassion, and courtesy—directly addressing crucial points for our industry, was nothing short of astonishing. Observing her growth and her contributions to the industry has been a profound experience for me.

Additionally, I’m inspired by the younger generation of women in this field, who face different challenges than I did but approach them with incredible determination. Connie Bowen is one such individual. Her directness and willingness to dive headfirst into challenges amaze me. I’m equally inspired by Sarah Nolet, who, after growing up in the Bay Area, relocated to Australia. She now manages a venture fund with Matthew Pryor, hosts a podcast, and runs a consulting business. Her approach to identifying and solving industry problems, albeit with a different style than Connie, keeps the essential focus on what matters most in our work.

Throughout your career in agriculture, food and biotech, what have been your most significant learnings or surprises?

This whole idea I touched on before about biologicals illustrates that sometimes the time for a technology just hasn’t come yet. It’s like you have fragments of the solution—a little bit here, a little bit there—but it hasn’t yet converged to a point where it can effectively address a problem. What I cherish about the longevity of my career is having witnessed these technologies circle back around two or three times.

I find it fascinating, really. Take biofuels, for instance. We put in a lot of work, but it didn’t take off as hoped. Now, it seems we’re on the cusp of a second wave, with much of the technology developed during the first attempt playing a crucial role. This experience has taught me one of the greatest lessons of my career: the value of patience and the understanding that some innovations need time to evolve.

As you transitioned from working at established companies to engaging with startups, what key lessons have you gleaned that might be relevant to leadership roles across various industries?

My personality and who I am seem to align better with the startup environment than with large companies. Everyone is different, but transitioning from an established corporate job to a startup, you quickly learn that you’re expected to do everything. Reflecting on the biofuels era, it was common to see venture capitalists replace startup CEOs, claiming they weren’t equipped to elevate the company. The solution? They’d often bring in executives from large oil companies, invariably men, who were accustomed to having others manage their logistics and communications. This textbook move would frequently backfire, highlighting a mismatch in expectations versus the startup reality.

What resonates with me about startups is the necessity to juggle a variety of tasks, which suits my preference for breadth in my work. Yet, my view on the impact of corporations versus startups has evolved significantly over my career. I used to harbor a certain disdain for corporations, seeing them as entities where making a real impact as one person was next to impossible, and startups as the superior alternative. But my perspective has shifted. Large companies, especially when led by visionary individuals, have the capacity to enact substantial changes, often more so than startups.

This realization becomes particularly poignant when considering the role of women in leadership. The impact a woman can make as the CEO of a Fortune 500 company is immense, potentially exceeding the influence she might have at the helm of a 10-person startup. Despite the challenges, including the promotional barriers within corporate America, the potential for making a significant impact is undeniable.

 I recently read a report by S&P Global that said the growth rate of women in senior leadership roles had its lowest increase in over 10 years in 2023, rising only 0.5%. According to report , the proportion of women in coveted executive roles declined in 2023 for the first time in nearly two decades, signaling a potential setback for gender parity in corporate America. This trend is disheartening, with projections suggesting it might take until 2072 to achieve gender parity at the C-Suite level at the current pace.

Although some may perceive startups as more conducive to women’s success and self-expression, I believe in the power and necessity of women’s presence and advancement within corporate environments. This perspective may not align with everyone’s expectations, but it’s a conviction born from my experiences and the evolution of my thoughts.

For startups looking to make an impact in the agrifood tech space, how can they get involved with IFPA?

The best way to reach me is through LinkedIn, where I’m quite active. If you try to contact me and don’t receive a response initially, please don’t hesitate to reach out again. My inbox is often overflowing, but I do make an effort to reply to everyone. LinkedIn is an excellent platform for those looking to get involved in technology within our industry.

Regarding our accelerator, we’ve just closed applications for this year and are currently in the process of selecting companies. However, we will reopen the application process at the end of this year for the next cohort, running from June to October. I encourage interested parties to apply.

Even if you’ve missed the accelerator application window for this year, I still urge individuals with promising technologies in the produce sector to get in touch with me directly. I have connections with many members and professionals in this space and am always eager to assist wherever I can.