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May 15, 2017

Expanding AgTech…Beyond Salinas

Salinas may be proximate to Silicon Valley, but it certainly does not mean that technology has to originate there. To be successful, tech must expand to all areas where specialty crops are grown.

Though many farming operations throughout California have been open to working with agtech startups, the testing and use of new products and services is still the domain of the “early adopter.” Agtech must be more widely adopted as a means of accelerating the pace of technologies that will serve the entire industry. Western Growers is working to affect that change.

Couched between Monterey County and the Silicon Valley, the Western Growers Center for Innovation and Technology (WGCIT) was born in the ideal region for cross-pollination between the ag and tech sectors. Salinas, the “salad bowl” of the United States, has provided the foundation needed for agtech companies to connect with farmers and perfect their innovative solutions to the biggest challenges facing the ag industry. As the center goes into its second year, we are looking to build on that foundation by spreading the benefits of agtech to other regions throughout California.

On March 27, we hosted a “Deeper Dive” Forum in Fresno, Calif., where farmers and agtech startups came together to delve into the water management challenges facing the agricultural sector and the obstacles that water technologists are overcoming to create real solutions that work for the Central Valley region and beyond. This wasn’t your typical agtech event that showcases all types of technologies; this event was focused on one topic: water technology for agriculture.

With 160 people in attendance, the forum kicked off with a keynote address from A.G. Kawamura of Orange County Produce about the importance of the adoption of technology, as well as collaboration. The forum then flowed to a panel where Central Valley farmers had a candid discussion about the pressures growers face regarding water on the farm and what technologies they seek to help relieve those pressures. Don Cameron of Terranova Farms, Cannon Michael of Bowles Farming Company, Steve Patricio of Westside Produce and Stuart Woolf of Woolf Farming & Processing spoke about everything from desiring technology that notifies farmers of problems to advising developers to be flexible and meet farmers during their evening down time or on weekends.

A water technologist panel then came together where WGCIT residents such as Kevin France from SWIIM and Manu Pillai of Waterbit were part of a discussion on the “pain points” technology providers face. They discussed the need for growers to engage in problem solving with honest startups. The final “collaboration panel” attempted to tie the first discussions together with some brainstorming on the strategies and tactics that farmers AND technologists might utilize to better work together to solve issues surrounding water.

The purpose of the event was to drive and advance innovation and collaboration in water management technology…and it certainly did. This event was truly a group effort. Not only between farmers and innovators, but among the community. The City of Fresno, Fresno State University, Fresno Chamber of Commerce, Fresno County Farm Bureau and Fresno Food Expo partnered with WG, AT&T, Forbes and the Mixing Bowl to bring this event together—all with the common goal of identifying the success and barriers to technology adoption and how it might be accelerated in the ag sector.

This event was the first effort of our new solutions-orientated approach to actively seek out technologies that meet farmers’ exact needs and solve agriculture’s most immediate challenges. Moving forward, we want to continue to identify and zero in on specific technologies, that solve specific ag problems, in specific regions.

We plan to do more of these short, one-day sessions here in California and soon in Arizona. In the future, we will be focusing on topics such as mechanization and food safety. The Center for Innovation and Technology plans to take the show on the road to engage growers and technologists in collaborative efforts to solve local and industry wide problems. Stay tuned!