Date: Jul 20, 2017
Magazine:
July/August 2017

For the past three years, the Forbes AgTech Summit has been an impressive showcase of the latest and greatest in agtech innovation from around the globe. This year, the jam-packed event went from impressive to spectacular.

More than 600 people gathered in the heart of downtown Salinas, California on June 27–28, 2017, to hear from industry leaders about the most pressing challenges facing agriculture, as well as from the entrepreneurs who are inventing technologies to help solve those issues.

Finding solutions to the industry’s labor shortage was top of mind for farmers during this year’s event. Panelists detailed critical labor issues such as the lack of immigration reform, and the scarcity of younger generation farmworkers as the current workforce ages out. The severe labor shortage in agriculture has reached a critical stage, and cutting-edge technologies to ease the deficit of labor must be created sooner rather than later.

“We have made technological advances from planting up to harvest but that’s where it stops,” said Brian Antle, president of Planttape USA, during the Help Wanted: How Labor is Shaping the Farm of Tomorrow session. Antle explained to the audience that no automation or technology has been developed that can mimic the expert skills of a farmworker to know which crop is ripe for the picking.

The possibilities, however, are gradually moving forward. Soft Robotics, one of the newest residents of the Western Growers Center for Innovation & Technology (WGCIT), has developed a gripping system that can adapt to handling objects of varying sizes, shapes and weights using air pressure. “The hand,” which has no metal structure, can easily package produce as delicate as a tomato without bruising it. At the event’s Innovation Showcase, the Soft Robotics team demonstrated how the hand has the ability to simply pick up a tomato from the packing line and gently place it into a box. The air pressure changes based on the size or shape of the fresh produce.

The challenge lies in inventing a robot that can simultaneously use the hand and also detect when a piece of fruit or vegetable is ready to be picked.

Bruce Taylor, CEO of Taylor Farms, took the solution in another direction. “It’s not a shortage of labor; it’s no labor. The way we grow needs to change,” said Taylor during a riveting session on brand growth. Taylor discussed the possibilities of different growing practices as a solution to the labor crisis, noting experimentation with new seeds that could produce a lettuce head that has a bulb on the bottom so it would be easier to harvest.

In addition to covering labor-saving technologies and strategies, sessions also highlighted tactics to overcome go-to-market challenges, growth opportunities for fresh organic produce, approaches to optimizing yields, and how farmers can prepare for future water shortages using sensors.

Panel sessions were interjected with networking opportunities and recognition of some of the industry’s leading agtech innovators and adopters. On Thursday, Western Growers awarded Vic Smith, president and CEO of JV Smith Company, with the association’s Forbes Impact Award, while the City of Salinas honored Lorri Koster, chairwoman and CEO of Mann Packing Co., with the city’s Forbes Impact Award. The Forbes Impact Awards are presented at each Summit to individuals who are leading, innovating and pushing boundaries in their given field.

“[Vic] has been a tireless advocate for advancement of the science, technology, research and development necessary to meet the demands of a rapidly changing agricultural and food supply system. Vic has constantly reminded us that to prepare for the future we must invest today,” said Sammy Duda, senior vice president of national operations for Duda Farm Fresh Foods and chairman of Western Growers, while presenting the WG Forbes Impact Award to Smith.

Smith has been one of the biggest advocates for technology in agriculture since the beginning. Several years ahead of others, he pursued technology that would allow him to thin, space and mechanically weed. When precision thinning equipment neared perfection, Smith challenged his team on what else they could do with these mechanization tools. With the flip of a switch, JV Smith Company started applying crop protection chemistry with precision. This allowed for significant savings through reduced chemical applications using the same equipment.

Smith is again leading the way in bringing new ideas and technologies forward with his support of the WGCIT. He has already created partnerships with multiple WGCIT residents including Geovisual Analytics, Trace Genomics and SWIIM Systems.

“We are not going to survive and move forward unless we start bringing innovation and technology into farming,” said Smith during his acceptance speech. “I’m very honored. To receive an award like this, it’s truly about a lot of people.”

Smith went on to speak about the support provided by industry leaders such as Bruce Taylor of Taylor Farms, John Hartnett of SVG Partners and Tom Nassif of Western Growers, and thanked them, as well as the JV Smith Company team, for helping advance technology and innovation.

The festivities continued to gain momentum during a private luncheon at the WGCIT. Nearly 100 agtech startups, venture capitalists, academia and Western Growers board members came together to discuss collaboration opportunities in the agtech space and celebrate the ongoing success and development of the WGCIT.

“It takes many partners to make the Center and this larger innovation effort work,” said WG President & CEO Tom Nassif during the luncheon’s opening remarks. “It takes financial support and many of you have helped underwrite the Center and its programs. It takes entrepreneurship, which is embodied by our startups who are working to solve problems and create business. It takes growers on the leading edge who are willing to work with technologists to perfect these solutions. We thank you.”

Wells Fargo then presented Western Growers with a $30,000 grant for the second year in a row to create scholarships for start-up companies who are looking to advance their innovations by joining the WGCIT. Past scholarship recipients include AgVoice, Ayrstone Productivity, Food Origins, Harvesting Inc, HeavyConnect, Intelligent Wireless Networks, PastureMap, Soft Robotics and Wexus Technologies. This year’s grant will again be used to further assist entrepreneurs in bringing their technologies—everything from automation and clean tech to water efficiency and food safety—from development to market.

WG Staff Contact

Stephanie Metzinger
Senior Manager, Communications
949-885-2256

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Western Growers members care deeply for the food they grow, the land they sustain, the people they employ, and the community in which they live. 

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