Today, the Western Growers Center for Innovation & Technology is fulfilling its potential and helping connect agriculture and technology in a way that is moving the industry forward and tackling some difficult challenges.
Dennis Donohue, consulting director of the Center, played an integral role in the establishment of the concept when he was mayor of Salinas, and the city, through its Economic Development Department, was a founding sponsor and continues to support the center financially as well as through collaborative efforts.
Andy Myrick, manager of that department, said the sponsorship has been well worth the money and effort. He noted that, before he came aboard, the city of Salinas identified agtech as part of its long-term strategy to create jobs within the community. He recalls that a financial institution decided to close down an operation, which meant the elimination of hundreds of jobs. Mayor Donohue convened a committee of stakeholders in 2007 in which the long term strategy was developed and embarked upon.
In fact, Donohue, with deep roots in the Salinas Valley produce industry, ran for mayor in 2006 proclaiming he would be the “Mayor of AgTech.” During his first year in office, he was also the chairman of the board of the Grower-Shipper Association of Central California. Marrying city politics with the agricultural industry was a natural for the leader of both at the time. But Donohue quickly gives credit where it is due, noting that many people played vital roles in bringing the idea he ran on in 2006 to fruition in 2015 with the opening of the center. Along the way, Bruce Taylor of Taylor Farms and John Hartnett of SVG Partners got involved and helped give the agtech concept shape. The idea of a center bridging the gap between the Silicon Valley and the Salinas Valley took root. Others contributed ideas and pledged funds. And then, Western Growers stepped forward to man the operation and nurse it into flight. “It was an evolutionary process with the right people at the right time stepping forward to make it happen,” Donohue said.
Myrick said the results so far have been satisfying. He noted “at last count, there were 51 companies in the center. At least three or four have left the nest and started businesses of their own where they are hiring people.”
He added that Salinas has become the place to be if you are an agtech entrepreneur. Recently, he hosted a South Korean delegation that included a trip to Salinas and a visit with government officials on its U.S. ag tour. Myrick noted that for foreign delegations especially, the government is the focal point when they come to visit. “We are often the point of entry for new companies.”
Donohue, who left office in 2012, said his successors have followed suit on the idea and Salinas has changed its reputation. He told the story of a Sacramento legislator identifying the current mayor as coming from the city doing all the work in the agtech sector. It has been a game changer for the city and the center is helping lead the tech charge for agriculture at large.
While Salinas, of course, is home to many industries, Myrick said there is no doubt that agriculture is at the core of the city’s foundation. City officials recognize that. Moving forward, he said the city does see one of its roles as identifying barriers faced by agtech entrepreneurs and addressing those problems that have a governmental component. He said the high cost of living in Salinas is one of those challenges and the city is involved in searching for answers. He pointed to farmworker housing projects developed by at least two different companies in the recent past as one solution to that problem. In general, he noted that Salinas is on an upward trend with an unemployment rate that is dropping.