This week, Salinas was host to nearly 600 of the smartest and most entrepreneurial minds in Silicon Valley and global agriculture for the second annual Forbes Media AgTech Summit. Many industry leaders, including Taylor Farms Chairman and CEO Bruce Taylor, were part of the event, which also featured a speech by California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom.
Under a huge white tent along Main Street Salinas, the invitation-only event fostered lively debate and generated rich networking opportunities while showcasing the latest innovation for farmers, investors and stakeholders of the global agricultural ecosystem.
“This summit is a fantastic opportunity for the AgTech community to discuss real solutions in accelerating new technologies and capabilities in farming,” said Taylor. “We are currently in trials with eight of the participating companies we met during last year’s Forbes AgTech Summit.” He also noted the spike in attendees this year — up from 400 — and observed that there are more growers open to “changes and innovation.”
Salinas Mayor Joe Gunter told The Californian, “It’s grown, it’s bigger and it’s exciting.” He said the event also brought in more customers to local downtown businesses and is part of the city’s goal to develop the agtech industry as part of a larger picture involving economic development and creating knowledge-based jobs.
In a media interview, Newsom said agriculture is already a $9 billion economic engine in Salinas Valley. He said leadership is critical to Salinas Valley’s goal of successfully merging ag and tech.
“It’s whatever you decide because all of the tools are here, everything is here,” Newsom said, adding that Salinas’ competitive edge includes the geography and being near the coast, and “proximity to the valley and the human capital. The opportunity is endless.”
The Innovation Showcase at the summit expanded this year, featuring more than 35 innovative AgTech startups focused on a wide variety of solutions that will result in higher crop yields and less food waste — from precision agriculture and robotics to traceability software, genomics and machine learning.
Forbes’ Paul Noglows, executive producer of the event, said part of the goal with this year’s show was to build the Innovation Showcase. “I’m really excited about how this program came together,” he added.
July 13th included a tour of the Taylor Farms processing plant. The next day’s plenary sessions fostered foster dynamic discussions around a range of topics including: food security, the microbe revolution, labor’s next frontier, and life after water.
One of the “Innovation Spotlights” involved a candid conversation between Dan Harburg of start-up Soft Robotics and Taylor, one of his beta customers. Harburg said that if there is a need for a robot with good dexterity and visual capability, “we might just have it.”
Soft Robotics is working with Taylor Farms by providing automated gripping technology to help with the sorting and packing of delicate fruits and vegetables. They told a media reporter that they have developed “a fundamentally new class of robotic grippers that are adaptive, inexpensive and simple to use.”
In an interview with Forbes, Harburg said the two companies will be rolling out several applications for the robotic arms at Taylor Farms’ plant in Salinas, CA, with full production about four to five years away. When that happens, Taylor noted, jobs in the industry can change from low-wage, low-skill work to more highly-skilled, better paying jobs.