SALINAS, Calif. — Produce industry members and agricultural technology purveyors came together at the Forbes AgTech Summit to discuss everything from automation to sustainability to blockchain to food safety.
Growers heard about the advances in those areas and how they might be useful to their businesses, and investors and technology companies listened to growers talk about some of their challenges and what they need to manage them more effectively.
Across the dozen-plus presentations of the summit, growers proved consistent on two aspects of their approach to innovation.
First, most companies will not innovate for the sake of innovating — they look for technology that solves specific problems for them.
Secondly, growers want technology vendors willing to listen to them and tailor solutions to them.
Taylor Farms CEO Bruce Taylor gave examples of these principles when he spoke about working with robotics company Quest Industrial. Based in Wisconsin, Quest worked with Taylor Farms to develop machines just for them, adjusting as needed to meet rate and quality specifications set by the processor.
In addition to examining the current opportunities for innovation, the summit asked panel members to look to the future.
Curtis Garner, senior farm analyst for Los Banos, Calif.-based Bowles Farming Co., expected technology advances in the next decade or so that will allow him to optimize inputs for individual plants rather than only for different varieties or zones of a field.
“Once we do that, we’re going to see increases in yield that (are) going to really blow our minds,” Garner said. “What we thought limits or genetic potential (are) really going to be out the window.”
Driscoll’s vice president of research and development Scott Komar said he expects continuing progress on sustainability in the coming years.
“We’re going to see conservation of water advance in very significant ways,” Komar said.
His company is continuously looking to improve its sustainability in numerous ways, as do many others in the industry.
Businesses have to put practicality first in most cases, however. The economics of an innovative solution have to make sense.
Komar noted the plastic clamshell used for berries as an example, describing how the packaging has been built specifically to maintain the quality of the fruit from field to packinghouse to truck to distribution center to retail shelf.
“Outside the industry, you wouldn’t know that there are over 15 functional design specs of that patented container that went into that design,” Komar said. “That container is highly functional, and it’s evolved that way over decades.
“We do want to reduce our plastic footprint, no question about that, but there’s a bit of a hurdle we’ve got to get over,” Komar said.
Participants in a panel on blockchain spoke highly of the potential for that technology, with one person remarking that blockchain is as inevitable now as the internet was in the years before it achieved its current status as an essential tool for everyday business.
In another session, executives with four greenhouse companies expressed their optimism about the growth potential for the sector. Panelists cited growing demand for local produce and increasing interest in food safety as factors driving the industry.
One panel featured a conversation between California leafy greens producers about advancements they would like to see in food safety — from better pathogen testing to some kind of kill step — in wake of the E. coli outbreak linked to romaine lettuce.
Other sessions at the summit covered data, robotics, millennial farmers and how Salinas continues to develop as a hub for ag tech and how area colleges are working to develop programs that encourage young people to explore careers in the industry.
With the summit in its fourth year, Taylor gave a ringing endorsement of the event.
“In our business, we have seen tremendous impact from (Forbes AgTech) and from the ecosystem this has helped build in the Salinas Valley and in Salinas in particular,” Taylor said.