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August 4, 2016

Forbes AgTech Summit Learning to Do More with Less through Innovation

Old town Salinas was transformed into an agtech hub on July 13-14 when the most ambitious and auspicious of innovations were showcased during the 2016 Forbes AgTech Summit. This exciting event brought together more than 600 fresh produce leaders, Silicon Valley’s technology industry, entrepreneurs and venture capitalists to network and discuss solutions to the most critical issues affecting food production globally.

“California talks a big game about being behind ag but doesn’t support ag as much as it can,” said Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom during the opening reception as the last of the attendees were filing in after tours of several groundbreaking facilities, including the Mann Packing and Taylor Farms processing plants, Tanimura & Antle’s Spreckels Crossing employee housing complex and the Western Growers Center for Innovation and Technology (WGCIT).

“We are in a hinge moment in history between the old and the new. Right now is the opportune time to use technology to connect the dots to solve the problems that are being created in the industry by regulatory issues. We need to come together to help build these platforms,” said Newsom.

Labor was highlighted as one challenge—heightened by changing demographics and exacerbated by regulatory barriers—that is pushing agriculture to mechanize and bringing agtech to the forefront. WG President & CEO Tom Nassif moderated a keynote panel discussion—Labor’s Next Frontier—on how the decline of farm labor is driving agriculture toward more automation.

“We are facing more regulations and less labor…how do we compete with that?” asked Nassif.  Investment in technology is a solution. It’s up to us to make our labor force more efficient and take advantage of what tech has to offer.”

During the panel, Nassif, Sammy Duda, WG board senior vice chair and vice president of Duda Farm Fresh Foods, and Harold McClarty, president of HMC Farms, discussed the labor challenges faced by the industry and what type of labor-saving technologies need to be developed to assist with production.

“There is a diminishing number of people who want to do the labor. Wages can rise, but the supply of labor will still remain low,” said Duda.

The passionate discussion among these three industry leaders set the tone for the conference and put into perspective why the need for technology is so critical. “I don’t want my commodity to be a luxury item that only people in this room can eat, and that is where we are going. I can’t keep raising my prices, it won’t work in the marketplace,” said McClarty.

The development of tools and technologies, such as mechanical harvesters and automatic thinners, have already helped the industry reduce reliance on labor. Appropriately, WG Board Chairman Larry Cox of Lawrence Cox Ranches presented Frank Maconachy of Ramsay Highlander the Forbes Impact Award for his company’s dedication to mechanizing specialty crop agriculture.

Ramsay Highlander has built machines that can harvest 15,000 pounds of spinach in an hour (replacing about 100 workers) and lettuce thinners that require only one farmworker as opposed to the crew of 30 typically needed. Maconachy is also working on a tomato de-viner that will reduce a crew of 40 to just 10.

Platforms, sensors, farm management software and satellite imagery are also playing a large role in the quest to help farmers produce more with less. At the Innovation Showcase, participants had the opportunity to network with more than 40 different start-up companies and learn about their innovative solutions. The two rooms that comprised the Innovation Showcase were buzzing with talks of potential partnership between fellow startups, discussions about possible financial support between startups and venture capitalists and conversations between startups and new and prospective customers.

Eleven of the 20 WGCIT residents participated in the showcase, including Food-Origins, GeoVisual Analytics, Inteligistics, Trace Genomics, Specright, HeavyConnect, TerrAvion, California Safe Soil, HarvestPort, iFood Decision Sciences and Lotpath. Among the residents, GeoVisual Analytics and Trace Genomics were announced as two of the three winners of THRIVE’s Operational Excellence, Sustainability, and Innovation awards during summit.

As part of the benefits they enjoy as residents of the Center, all 20 startups were invited to an exclusive luncheon with venture capitalists, angel investors, WGCIT sponsors and key growers. Held in the Taylor Farms courtyard outside the Center, residents enjoyed one-on-one interaction with potential financial backers and clients.

Five additional start-up companies put in applications to join the WGCIT during the summit—bringing the total number of startups working out of the Center to 25 in just eight months. The Center plans to expand even more thanks to a generous $30,000 donation from Wells Fargo presented to WG during the summit’s opening ceremony. The funds, which will be distributed through the WG Foundation, will be used to create scholarships for entrepreneurs who are looking to advance their innovations by joining the Center. The scholarships will allow 10 additional technology companies to receive a coveted spot in the incubator for one year.

Throughout the event, attendees participated in a series of seminars and “fireside chats” on topics such as food security, water issues, biological revolutions and agtech investment, among others. One of the most popular discussions was a candid conversation between Bruce Taylor, the founder and CEO of Taylor Farms, and Dan Harburg, the director of business development for Soft Robotics. Soft Robotics is working with Taylor Farms, providing an automated “arm” that helps with the sorting and packing of fruits and vegetables. The arm uses a gripper made of a soft material that mimics the way an octopus grips so produce will remain unharmed.

A resounding theme among all of the discussions at the second annual Forbes AgTech Summit was how to do more with less. With a global population expected to reach 9.3 billion within the next 30 years, food production will need to increase by as much as 70 percent. Combined with the fact that we are entering an era of diminishing natural resources, agtech will necessarily be a major part of the solution.