A drone equipped with a multi-spectral camera awaits takeoff at the Southeastern Agricultural Center's research farm in Moultrie, Ga. The technology developed by a Georgia consortium is designed to monitor crop vigor, insect infestation and fungal infection for the agriculture industry. (AP Photo/Johnny Clark)

A drone awaits takeoff at the Southeastern Agricultural Center’s research farm in Moultrie, Ga. The drone monitors crop vigor, insect infestation and fungal infection for the agriculture industry. (AP/Johnny Clark)

When I write about startups, I often wonder how many people automatically picture young, hoody-wearing computer programmers banging away on laptops with empty cans of Red Bull scattered across a table.

It’s a false stereotype, of course. Entrepreneurs can be any age (a Kauffman Foundation study found the average age of U.S.-born tech entrepreneurs to be 39) and in any type of business.

Innovation is the same story. The mobile app developers and Internet companies don’t have a monopoly on innovation, which is simply the introduction of a new idea, method or process to an existing system. Innovation happens across every industry.

That fact was discussed Thursday morning at a Maine Startup and Create Week panel on innovation in the food and agriculture industries. Moderated by Peggy Grodinsky, who edits the Maine Sunday Telegram’s Source section, the panel consisted of Brad McNamara, CEO of Freight Farms, a Boston startup that transforms old shipping containers into insulated hydroponic farms that can yield as much fresh produce as a one-acre plot of land; Rob LeClerc, CEO of AgFunder, a New York City-based investment platform that connects investors with innovative agriculture companies; and Marada Cook, who is co-director of Crown o’ Maine Organic Cooperative in Vassalboro and co-owner of Northern Girl, a local food processing company in Aroostook County.

There is a wealth of innovation going on in the agriculture industry, according to LeClerc. His company recently participated in an $800,000 investment in a company called OnFarm, which pulls together disparate data from several new Internet-enabled tools available to farmers and aggregates it for the farmer who wants real-time information about their farms, according to TechCrunch. While driverless cars aren’t available to the general public yet, there are already potato farmers in Aroostook County using GPS-enabled tractors that drive themselves. But innovation in agriculture is not just tech, he said.

“It’s not just apps,” he said. “It could be new business models. It could be businesses enabled by new technology like LEDs.”

Freight Farms is one of those companies benefiting from new technology like LEDs. The company retrofits its shipping containers into modular farms, but without energy-efficient LEDs, which provide the “sunlight” inside the containers, the energy costs of using traditional sun lamps would not be viable. Freight Farms, which raised more than $30,000 on Kickstarter before closing a $1.2 million Series A round last year, has developed a farming system that will allow more local food to be grown in urban settings anywhere in the world (they’re obviously easily shippable). And since the former containers are insulated, they will also allow for fresh produce to be produced throughout the year in places like Maine. They’re also stackable. And, perhaps the coolest aspect, they’re “smart,” meaning they are connected to the Internet and can be controlled from a smartphone.

McNamara said the idea was to make use of the space that goes to waste wherever people live, whether it’s sidelots or areas around homes.

“So for us it was the creative and flexible use of that space, which we’ve seen grow everywhere and we think people are really starting to embrace,” he said.

Northern Girl, which sources root vegetables from Aroostook County farms, processes them in its facility and distributes them to retail consumers and Maine school cafeterias, is also innovating. Cook said they’re working on building their own blast freezer using some off-the-shelf components, which would be much less expensive than the traditional industrial models that go for upwards of $100,000, she said.

“It’s not a proven thing, but we’re going to try it,” she said. “We have a lot of free cold air.”

Cook said farmers in Maine could certainly benefit from greater access to technology. Even just cell phone access is sometimes an issue, she said.

“You’d be surprised by the number of farmers who can’t answer their cell phones on their properties,” she said.

Attendees who presumed the panelists would agree on using technology in agriculture were surprised. Fireworks broke out when the issue of robots and drones was brought up.

LeClerc, from AgFunder, mentioned a company in the Midwest working on robots that can move throughout a crop depositing just the right amount of fertilizer in just the right places, saving money and increasing crop yield. Cook pushed back,  saying she didn’t like the idea of letting a drone or robot loose on her farm.

LeClerc was surprised by Cook’s reaction and the “disconnect” that led to her rejection of some types of technology. He asked if it was born of “religious” beliefs.

Cook said she doesn’t like technology that removes farmers from the land, and worries that “using drones makes us less able to respond to the environment we are living in.”

Asked after the panel to clarify her position on using drones on farms to improve efficiency, Cook said she doesn’t think creating efficiency should  always be a farmer’s end goal.

“It’s kind of stupid to bring efficiencies at the expense of jobs,” she said, adding that if farms were only operating within local ecosystems and not competing on a global scale that downward pressure to cut costs at the expense of jobs wouldn’t be necessary. “You want to be as efficient as makes sense.”

Providing jobs for her neighbors is important to her. She is also wary that once people go down the road of using drones and robots, it would become a slippery slope.

“Why don’t I have drones get my kids out of bed and put them on the bus so I can sleep all day?” she said. “Where does it stop?”

In an interview after the panel, LeClerc said the drone industry by some estimates is expected to reach $75 billion by 2020, and that 75 percent of that will be in the agriculture industry.

“There are two million farms in the U.S. and most could benefit from drones,” he said.

The deployment of more drones and robotics on farms doesn’t mean the farmer is out of  a job — “the farmer would still make the decisions of when, how and what,” he said — but it would probably mean farms wouldn’t need as many employees as in the past.

If farmers like Cook push back on the use of drones on farms, it’s not hard to imagine the pushback other companies will receive for the new products they’re developing. Modern Meadows, a Brooklyn-based startup that can grow leather and meat in a lab without slaughtering any animals, just raised $10 million in a seed round, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Carolyn Mattick and Brad Allenby, a student and professor from Arizona State University, tackled the subject in an article in a recent issue of Issues in Science and Technology:

“Food is a culturally charged domain, and the technological evolution of meat may well outpace cultural acceptance of radically new food production technology,” they wrote. “Nonetheless, people may eventually look at a T-bone steak with the nostalgia they feel for the Apple IIe: It was an important contributor to technological evolution and economic productivity, but no one would choose it over an iPad.”