August 1, 2015

Forbes AgTECH SUMMIT: Silicon Valley & Salinas Valley Converge to Discuss Future

Eye-in-the-sky to pie-in-the-sky technology was front and center at The Forbes AgTech Summit, held in Salinas, CA, in early July with Western Growers as a strategic partner.

The summit was part of Forbes’ Reinventing America series and was held in partnership with SVG Partners and Thrive Accelerator, which is a highly selective mentorship and investment program for technology-enabled startups in the agricultural space.  SVG, along with Western Growers, Forbes and Verizon, launched the Thrive Accelerator in July 2014 with the AgTech Summit serving as the culmination of the year-long effort and the announcing of the winners of this program, which will soon be launched again to develop new ag tech ideas.  The winning companies of this first Thrive Accelerator, as well as all of the 10 finalists, are ultimately vying for funding to take their ideas through the various development and implementation stages.  Some of the companies are further advanced along this path than others, but the common thread is the advancement of technology in the ag space.

In large part, these startup companies were celebrated at The AgTech Summit, but the all-day event held on Main Street in Salinas featured many other technological solutions to some of agriculture’s thorniest issues.  A number of outside-the-box ideas were also given a platform at the event, which was held in a big tent in front of the future headquarters of Taylor Farms, and the Western Growers Center for Innovation and Technology, which will open in September.

WG President and CEO Tom Nassif helped kick-off the day by participating in the opening panel, titled, “The World’s Biggest Opportunity.”  The panelists discussed how a generation of new technologies will revolutionize the way farming is done in the future. Nassif focused his remarks on the need for innovative solutions to the challenges facing the future of agriculture, in particular the increasing regulatory and market pressures to grow more with less.

“In the future, farming companies must continue to seek out and adopt new technologies that will allow them to increase yields while using less resources and inputs—such as water, labor, fertilizers and pesticides, and energy—and generating less waste,” said Nassif. “We are here today to facilitate the type of synergy between agriculture and technology that will allow us to create these needed efficiencies in the future.”

He jokingly noted that one of the best ways to avoid future impediments to agriculture’s progress is to convene a part-time legislature in California, which would, by definition, be able to enact fewer regulations.

On a serious note, Nassif opined that the future is bright for the specialty crop industry because the rise of the middle class in developing countries brings with it increased desire and income to purchase fresh fruits, vegetables and nuts.

Throughout the day, speakers, and especially the moderators, continued to stress the importance of creating new technologies to help feed the earth’s growing population.  The agriculturalists on the panels tended to focus on using these technologies to help farmers survive.  Nassif, and many of the fresh produce industry representatives, clearly came down on the practical side of enhancing business opportunities as opposed to the more esoteric effort of feeding a growing population.

Nassif touted the opening of the new WG innovation center, stating that it will allow the association the opportunity to vet new technologies with the ultimate goal of increasing the profitability of its members.  He noted that helping members navigate the many new ideas that will surface in the next few years is one of the key roles Western Growers can play in the ag technology space.

Later in the day, Driscoll Strawberry Associates CEO Kevin Murphy articulated that his firm’s goal is to produce great tasting berries and deliver them to customers all over the world.  The firm does this with the clear knowledge that not everyone on the globe is going to be able to eat berries.

While fresh produce companies are clearly proud of the role they play in providing food to the world, solving world hunger is not their immediate goal.

That concept tended to surface throughout the day partly because the agronomic crops—wheat, soybeans etc.—were center stage because the sheer number of the acres devoted to those crops is necessarily where technological advances are often focused.  WG Director Ron Ratto of Ratto Brothers and an audience member told this reporter that is the reality of being a specialty crop producer.  He said ag technologies do have application for fresh produce industry growers, but they typically are created for the grain crops and then adapted to specialty crops.

One such technology discussed several times during the summit is the use of satellite and drones to map virtually every acre in the United States and the world, for that matter.  Many different companies have surfaced to use this public data to help growers better manage their crops by more efficiently using chemicals, fertilizer and water, customizing their inputs on a sub-acre level.  One speaker discussed a Canadian lentil grower with thousands of acres who could have saved $3 million by using available data to spray his crop one more time.  Instead he made a gut decision, did not do the extra spray and lost lots of money.  That type of situation is hard to fathom in an industry dominated by small growers, but the use of public data on a sub-acre basis is applicable nonetheless.

Speaker after speaker noted that the farm community is very busy and basically impatient.  For a technology to be adapted, its value proposition has to be very obvious.  Wade Barnes, CEO of Farmers Edge, one of those companies using mapping to help farmers make agronomic decisions, said farmers basically say, “You have 20 minutes to make this new technology work or I am turning it off.”

He said new technology has to make farmers’ lives easier or it won’t be accepted.

Adam Litle of Granular noted the value of the data that is now available to farmers from many new technologies including satellites, drones, and moisture sensors.  He said many growers are now in the “descriptive” phase where they are using this data to see how the inputs have impacted their crops.  Next will be the “predictive” phase where they can use that data to make choices as to what level of inputs they need to produce the best crop they are growing.  Eventually, he said the data will lead the most progressive growers to the “prescriptive” phase where they can decide which crop to grow on the land they have.

While others were touting big data, such as weather information, he said each grower can start the process by looking at their small data and enter the descriptive phase.  Completing that assignment, they can combine their small data with big data to enter the second two phases of agronomic decision-making.

Another topic of interest that surfaced several times during the day was biotechnology and other advances in plant breeding.  During the opening session, WG’s Tom Nassif predicted that the need for more food would make genetic sequencing and other biotechnology advances more palatable.  He argues that as demand increases, technologies that can advance production will come to the forefront.

On that same dais, Sara Menker of Gro Intelligence seemingly agreed.  Though noting that she personally favors non-GMO food, she called the hysteria against it “a media problem” and an issue of perception as opposed to a food safety problem.  She said achieving acceptance for genetically modified products is a challenge, but not an insurmountable one.

Later in the day, Robert Fraley, the chief technology officer for Monsanto, who is called the father of GMO products, gave a more spirited defense of the technology and similar advances that are helping to produce better varieties and crop protection tools that can solve a multitude of issues.  Both he and Neal Gutterson, vice president of agricultural biotechnology at DuPont Pioneer, discussed new advancements that allow scientists to delve into the microbiomes of a plant.  This is allowing plant breeders to look at the genomes of a plant cell and be much more targeted in developing biologicals and other products for the good of the plant system.

Gutterson said understanding what happens at the root is very powerful information that can lead to better varieties and better treatments.  Fraley said like an individual’s finger prints, each plant has a unique microbiome and the understanding of that is tremendously powerful.

Venture capitalists were on several panels discussing the type of technology and companies that are attractive to the investment community.  In general, the comments indicated that ag technology and the food business is becoming an increasing popular play with the investment community.  While the delivery of food to consumers—such as meal-oriented—is leading the way for investors, in-the-field technology is also garnering interest.

Ben Chostner of Blue River Technology discussed his small firm’s successful efforts to attract several millions of dollars in investment for the building of “smart machines” that use cameras to analyze the needs of plants.  While Blue River has focused much of its efforts on the agronomic crops such as beans and corn, Chostner said they also have six machines currently operating in lettuce fields in the Salinas Valley.

In fact, Cory Reed, who is involved in technology investment for tractor giant John Deere, indicated that some of the best ideas in farm equipment technology are coming from smaller companies.  He noted that while John Deere might have ignored these firms in the past, today they are ready to embrace new technology no matter who develops it and help bring it to market.

As one would expect at any technology seminar, this one had its fair share of forward thinkers.  Gabe Blanchet, the 24-year-old co-founder and CEO of Grove Labs, showcased his firm’s bookcase-sized ecosystem that endeavors to put a green house in every home.  The piece of furniture uses a fish tank and its byproducts to help provide nutrients for a mini greenhouse that he said can give consumers two to three robust bowls of salad per week.  The company has already produced and delivered the first 50 of these ecosystems and expects to be in full production this fall.  Far from being competition for commercial growers, Blanchet believes it will stimulate increased consumption as consumers become more in tune with how food is produced.

The AgTech Summit began on Wednesday evening, July 8, with a reception and Innovation Showcase.  Featuring many of the cutting-edge technology companies in the agriculture industry, the Innovation Showcase was punctuated by comments from Steve Forbes, chairman and editor-in-chief of Forbes Media.  In his remarks, Forbes shared his enthusiasm for the growing relationship between the technology and agriculture sectors and his belief that technology will allow agriculture to address the current and emerging issues facing the industry.

Vic Smith, CEO of JV Smith Companies, and Western Growers chairman, echoed the sentiments expressed by Forbes. “It is incredible to witness the quality of talent—from both the fields of technology and agriculture—that has assembled for this event.  I am confident this will mark the beginning of an unprecedented era of agricultural innovation that will allow our industry to grow and thrive in spite of diminishing resources.”