By Cory Lunde and Stephanie Thara
On December 10, 2015, Western Growers President and CEO Tom Nassif and a trio of prominent past and present Western Growers chairmen were on hand to formally open the Western Growers Center for Innovation and Technology (WGCIT) housed in the Taylor Farms headquarter building in Salinas, Calif.
Attending the event were nearly 250 Western Growers members, industry partners, academia, local officials and media, as well as the inaugural group of WGCIT tenants.
Bruce Taylor, chairman and CEO of Taylor Farms, Salinas, CA, opened the ceremony with brief remarks about the new Taylor Farms building, followed by Nassif; Vic Smith, president and CEO of JV Smith Companies, Yuma, AZ; and current WG chairman Larry Cox, owner of Lawrence Cox Ranches, Brawley, CA. Together, they addressed the origins and purposes of the WGCIT, as well as highlighted the impact that the new facility will have on the region, state, nation and beyond.
“In an era of diminishing natural and human resources and growing regulatory and marketplace demands, the future of agriculture depends on technology,” said Nassif. “The Center will serve as a hub for the accelerated development and rapid deployment of innovative solutions to help farmers feed more people with fewer inputs.”
The idea for the WGCIT first originated in 2014 during Taylor’s tenure as Western Growers chairman. At Taylor’s urging, the WG Board of Directors identified the need to promote creative solutions to the most pressing problems facing the industry.
“The fresh produce industry is labor intensive, requires significant inputs and faces a stringent regulatory environment. Collectively, these challenges threaten the future viability of agriculture throughout the West,” Taylor stated.
Eventually, the WG Board of Directors coalesced around a single, unified goal: to feed more people with fewer inputs and leaving a smaller impact on the world. But how exactly would this vision be realized?
The answer was by creating a mechanism to accelerate the development and deployment of technology. “It is our mission to discover, to nurture and to promote innovation in the field of agriculture,” said Nassif in his remarks to the audience.
To accomplish this task, Western Growers decided to establish the WGCIT, an agricultural technology incubator aimed at bringing innovative entrepreneurs together with farmers and other agricultural companies to collaborate on bringing emerging technologies to market.
As outlined by Cox in his statements, the WGCIT will help prioritize industry needs, work with young innovators to develop and refine technologies to address these priorities, and communicate the most promising advancements to the industry and investment communities.
“We don’t have a shortage of issues facing our industry…but out of adversity comes opportunity,” said Cox. “I don’t know what type of innovative solutions will be coming out of (the Center) but what I do know is that we have issues with fertility, saline water, labor and all kinds of diseases that need to be solved. I’m looking forward to what our young generation’s fresh eyes and minds come up with.”
Comprising of 2,800 square feet, the WGCIT can eventually house more than 30 startup technology companies. These tenants will have access to hot desks or work stations, both with the amenities of a traditional office, including internet and phones, printers and copiers, and meeting and conference rooms.
Additionally, these startups will have access to routine classes, workshops and networking opportunities—all designed to provide them with the business and legal knowledge and customer connections they need to bring their technology from development to production.
Representatives from most companies currently housed in the WGCIT were on hand to participate in the grand opening ceremony:
California Safe Soil recycles food from supermarkets that can no longer be sold or donated, converting it into Harvest-to-Harvest fertilizer (H2H) for use in commercial and organic fertilizer and feed and retail lawn and garden markets.
GeoVisual Analytics’ OnSight platform is an early warning and monitoring system (using aerial imagery, ground-based leaf-level photos, and expert observations) that helps improve crop yields and reduce losses by detecting problems in the field earlier and with more precision.
HeavyConnect provides growers with tools that automate and simplify many of the tasks that consume a farming manager’s day. The cloud-based platform utilizes mobile devices to reduce the operational complexity common among successful growers.
iFoodDecisionSciences (iFood) provides flexible food safety software applications. They have developed paperless, easy-to-use solutions for food safety data entry, reporting, and analysis for growers, harvesters, packers, shippers, and processors.
Inteligistics offers innovative cool chain temperature visibility solutions to the fresh produce industry using “Internet of Things” and “Big Data” technologies.
Concentric Power is an innovative clean energy infrastructure company dedicated to sustainable agriculture and industry. Concentric develops onsite cogeneration facilities to deliver electric power and low temperature refrigeration from high efficiency, pre-engineered and pre-fabricated systems.
Rao Mandava, chairman and president of Inteligistics, stated that his firm is excited by “the opportunity to showcase solutions for the industry and connect with like-minded entrepreneurs in this fast-paced environment,” echoing the sentiments of other WGCIT tenants.
The work of these startup companies will be supported by a host of sponsors currently providing financial support to the WGCIT. The contributions of supporters like Bayer CropSciences, Farm Credit, JVSmith Companies, Monsanto, Prophet North America, Taylor Farms and Toro Micro-Irrigation will help keep the costs low for current and prospective tenants.
“We have this huge need for innovation to set us forward and propel the entire industry,” said Smith during his remarks. “We aren’t getting it done individually. This initiative is tremendous and bold, particularly because we are doing it in a cooperative and collaborative manner.”
Nasser Dean of Bayer expressed his company’s enthusiasm for the WGCIT saying, “Bayer CropSciences is proud to be an early supporter of this forward-thinking initiative. We look forward to continuing our long, productive strategic partnership in an effort to propel farming’s future in the fresh produce industry.”
As an additional benefit, these sponsors will have the opportunity to participate in an Advisory Group that will help the WGCIT identify and prioritize key technologies and programming for tenants of the Center.
After the grand opening concluded with a technologically-savvy laser light show, Nassif invited the crowd to enjoy refreshments, mingle and tour the WGCIT and Taylor Farms headquarter facilities.
After the event, Nassif reflected on the potential significance of the WGCIT stating, “By providing resources and relationships for start-up technology companies, the Center will spur innovation and bring products to market that will reduce reliance on inputs and enhance the bottom line of Western Growers’ members.”