March 17, 2018

Innovation Summit Brings AgTech to Imperial Valley’s Backyard

Chatter surrounding the latest in technology and ag innovation filled the corridors of the Stockmen’s Club in Brawley, CA, on February 8. Drawing a crowd of nearly 200 people, Western Growers’ Innovation in the Imperial Valley Summit brought together farmers, researchers, technologists and agtech startups to delve into the labor and water issues facing agriculture in this desert region and the specific technologies being invented to help solve those issues.

Innovation in the Imperial Valley, a full-day event, was divided into three parts, with the evening session at the Stockmen’s Club serving as the culmination of the event. The event is part of Western Growers’ latest effort to advance innovation by bringing agricultural technologies to farmers.

“So many times, technology and innovation stay within the Silicon Valley. Today, we are bringing tech to our backyard, so that the innovators can fully understand who we are,” said Dennis Donohue, lead of the WG Center for Innovation & Technology. “Imperial Valley is the type of setting where these technologists and inventors can come to be fully immersed in our world of ag, even if it’s just for a short time.”



The day began with exclusive field tours in the morning, where research and development specialists from Yamaha and Soft Robotics visited fields of iceberg lettuce, cauliflower and romaine lettuce to learn about automation needed in the fields. Pat Stafford from Church Brothers Farms spoke to these automation experts about the labor struggles growers are facing and demonstrated the types of machines already in use in the fields.

“The challenge is that the customers want exactly what they had yesterday—fresh produce that they are familiar with,” said Stafford. “You can create a new type of broccoli that can be easily machine-harvested, but it will look different and consumers may not want it.”

Team members from Yamaha and Soft Robotics had the opportunity to ask the questions needed to learn how their companies can invent or improve mechanization to help farmers meet the needs of their customers. When the field tours concluded, a handful of guests headed to Farm Credit Southwest Services to meet with students, agtech startups and venture capitalists for the afternoon session.



As part of WG’s goal to encourage students interested in science, technology, engineering and mathematics to pursue a career in agriculture, the Innovation in the Imperial Valley event included a session where youth were “AgSharks” for the afternoon. More than 60 students from 4H, Future Farmers of America and Imperial Valley College teamed with venture capitalists from Rabobank, Strategic Fresh LLC and Artemis Water Strategy to hear and judge pitches from agtech start-up companies. After the pitches and Q&A concluded, the students unanimously chose Novihum Technologies—who is producing a novel soil amendment product—as the winner.

The students also heard from keynote speakers Rosibel Ochoa, associate vice chancellor for technology partnership at UC Riverside, and Carl Vause of Soft Robotics, on the importance of STEM professionals to the future success of agriculture.

“The future is about science and technology,” said Ochoa. “It’s not enough to be a user. It’s important to harness that technology to solve problems.”



The excitement from the AgSharks workshop carried over to the evening session at the Stockmen’s Club, where conversations about possibilities of technology among Imperial Valley locals began to flow. The event kicked off with opening remarks from Western Growers’ Hank Giclas, Larry Cox of Coastline Family Farms, Donohue of WGCIT, and Ted Horan of RDO Equipment on how technology will continue to reshape all businesses in the future.

“The reality is that there is a labor shortage in agriculture due to an aging workforce and increased regulations and costs. Today, we are going to talk about possible solutions,” said Donohue.

Next, in-depth panels on automation and water technology took center stage. A “cattle call” topped off the hour, where start-up companies housed in the WG Center for Innovation & Technology came on stage to each provide a 90-second pitch about their company and technology. Attendees then had the opportunity to touch base with the startup that peaked their interest during the exhibition showcase that followed. To date, numerous startups are in talks with growers who attended the event about possible implementation of their technology in their fields.

The second half of the evening session included fireside chats with venture capitalists on what they look for when providing seed funding to companies, as well as with educators speaking on the role of university and research in the agtech space. The night ended with a keynote speech from Richard Moran on succeeding in the workplace and a candid outlook on living amongst the tech community in Silicon Valley.

From the dynamic topics discussed to the diversity of speakers, guests left the event with a wealth of information, including:

•   Technology needs to be looked at as a system, not as one action: Mechanization needs to happen across the entire value chain, because if one robot is working faster than the other parts of the production chain, there will be a bottle neck. Likewise, with irrigation technology, focus needs to be beyond one water valve. All other elements that are affecting or are affected by the valve need to be taken into consideration, as well.

•   Today’s farm practices won’t work for tomorrow’s machines: Growers and technologists need to collaborate to identify what in the planting and harvesting process can be modified. In order to create machines that meet growers’ needs, two items must be identified: 1) breeding genetics: how can a plant’s structure be modified to allow it to be easily harvested by a machine; and 2) growing systems: how can the way things are grown be changed for automation (i.e., growing on fewer beds, but having more rows).

•   Acceleration of technology that will help solve ag’s biggest issues is driven by collaboration: One of the biggest pain points startups face is finding growers who are willing to test out and demo their technology in the field.

•   Timing and risk matter most to venture capitalists when considering investing in startups: Venture capitalists consider many factors when deciding to invest in startups. Most importantly, they focus on 1) ability to solve problems in a timely manner; 2) market and capital risk; and 3) execution risk.


Innovation in the Imperial Valley—sponsored by RDO Equipment & Water, Netafim, Imperial Valley College, Farm Credit, UCANR and UC Riverside—is one of many events Western Growers plans to host to bring technology to the farming areas in California and Arizona. This summit followed on the heels of WG’s “Deep Dive Forum” last year, where 160 people gathered in Fresno to hear about specific technologies to address the Central Valley’s water ailments. Western Growers plans to bring the innovation conversation back to the Central Valley area later this year, this time focusing on issues beyond water.

“Bringing technology to Brawley is not something that happens all the time,” said Kathy Smith, director of strategic accounts and industry affairs at Monsanto. Smith was one of the nearly 200 attendees at Innovation in the Imperial Valley. “It’s so rare for anyone to bring this type of conversation to the farming community, and it’s great that Western Growers is taking the initiative and doing it.”