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September 14, 2018

WGCIT Sponsor: Vic Smith Eyes the Big Picture

Vic Smith readily admits that the agricultural technology play he and others are helping to fund is long term in nature with a positive return on investment still off in the future.

“If I had to justify it with my CFO, that might be difficult to do,” he quipped.

But Smith, CEO and president of JV Smith Companies, Yuma, AZ, has no regret about his continued contributions to the Western Growers Center for Innovation & Technology (WGCIT) and believes tangible ROI will result. The center is just now approaching the conclusion of its third year in operation, and Smith believes there are promising technologies beginning to surface.

He does offer that some of the efforts appear to be “solutions seeking a problem” but indicates that might be an occupational hazard of dealing with forward-thinking entrepreneurs that bring outside-the-box thinking to the problems facing this industry. His technology consultant, longtime industry veteran Paul Fleming, noted that there are “amazing ideas coming out of the center” that are attracting interest and investment. In fact, JV Smith Companies is involved with several of the start-ups trialing ideas and trying to help these tech pioneers connect the dots between innovation and grower needs.

Smith said that was the basic idea behind the effort when it was first hatched several years ago. He credits Bruce Taylor of Taylor Farms with incubating the idea and moving it to the development stage, and donating the space for the center. “And Tom Nassif did a heck of job of stepping forward and making it happen.”

Smith said he “loved the concept” of marrying the Silicon Valley with the Salinas Valley and helping to create solutions to the industry’s most pressing problems of increasing costs and shortage of labor, which the industry so heavily relies upon. He saw Taylor carrying the load and stepped to the plate with the realization “that others needed to support the effort” to make it a reality.

Smith is a big believer in technology and is currently working with the University of Arizona developing automatic equipment to help with planting and thinning of vegetable crops. He believes robotics are potential solutions for the industry’s labor problems, but their use for harvesting crops is still off in the future.

Fleming said the idea of a center, or incubator, focusing on agricultural issues in the heart of the Salinas Valley makes a great deal of sense. “Part of the synergies is having these innovators in the same space, talking to each other and coming up with solutions.”

He and Smith believe, however, that there might be opportunities to improve the current process to better focus on the needs of the industry. Fleming said other organizations focusing on the needs of the industry—most notably the Center for Food Safety at UC Davis—use an RFP approach. In those instances, industry leaders look at challenges they face and ask for proposals (RFPs) to address those challenges. The pair believe this model could be used by WGCIT to help bring solutions to the industry’s most pressing issues.

For example, Smith said one current problem is powdery mildew on spinach. He noted that it takes about 26 or 27 days to bring a spinach crop to fruition. Right now, powdery mildew is rearing its ugly head in some fields around day 21 causing growers to harvest the crop early, greatly reducing yields. “We just need five or six more days,” he said.

Fleming said several of the WGCIT current or past tenants are working with soil analysis and may be able to solve this issue in the future. Smith said deep dives into soil makeup might reveal differences in soil composition allowing growers to know which fields can be planted safely avoiding the powdery mildew problem.