In the Salad Bowl, Silicon Prairie and other top producing farmlands of the world, attention is turning to technology and education to bring agriculture into the Digital Age.
California’s first tech pioneers didn’t innovate in a garage. They worked out of a barn. These early risk-takers aggressively developed effective farming tools in the 1800s, turning California into an agricultural powerhouse in a few short decades.
One of the central places of this history, Salinas, California, is still a hotbed for agriculture technology innovation. It has become a world leader in leveraging cloud computing, robotics and the Internet of Things into farming practices.
In the 1800s, Salinas residents pushed modernization forward. They mechanized aspects of farming and radically increased yields. During the 1920s, almost overnight they shifted from commodities like wheat to high value vegetables and fruits. This entrepreneurial spirit earned Salinas Valley the nickname, “Salad Bowl of the World.”
Along the way, innovative land owners and hard-working migrants together turned Salinas into one of the world’s top agricultural areas of the world. John Steinbeck immortalized the struggles and triumphs in novels like East of Eden.
Salinas Valley is special for many reasons. The climate is mild and allows crops to grow year-round. Water is especially abundant in the aquifers under the valley. In the 1800s, farmers could ship their goods from a Pacific Ocean port just 12 miles away or send it up and down El Camino Real (now, Highway 101), then the most important road on the west coast. A century and a half later, just 90 miles away from Salinas, sprawling orchards transformed into Silicon Valley, the world’s technology capitol.
The Ag and Tech Worlds Collide
Many farmers are quick to point out they’ve been using laptops and phones just like everyone else, and many of their processes are tracked or managed digitally. Despite the close proximity between Salinas and Silicon Valley, local farmers wonder if agricultural technology will ever bare big fruit.
A combination of newer technologies, however, just might change all of that, according to Hank Giclas, who oversees technology planning for Western Growers, a trade group representing farmers in California, Arizona and Colorado.
“One of the most fundamental shifts has been wireless access to the internet and the cloud,” he said. “It gives farmers much greater insight into their operations, and they’re able to find efficiencies and optimize like never before.”
When Western Growers opened its Center for Innovation and Technology in downtown Salinas in 2015, the organization felt it was the right time to address the needs of its members to help spark ag tech innovation. The center provides support for startups, investors and growers to develop solutions in areas ranging from computer vision, cloud, robotics, drones, automation, food safety and plant breeding.
“I’m really interested in the rapid shifts in sensing technology,” Glicas added. “There’s a whole new wave of precision farming that’s coming to the fresh produce sector through sensor technology, and we need to sort that out.”
Sensors that measure precipitation, soil moisture, temperature, sunshine and wind can, in various ways, make fertilizing, watering and harvesting more efficient. Farmers and technologists are working together to understand how to use sensors and cloud technologies that leverage real-time and historical data, all to help make decisions at critical times.
Venture capital has been flowing into precision agriculture in areas like drone technology, automation and robotics. Dan Hodgson, a North Dakota venture capitalist who runs the firm Farm Quality Assurance, offered a similar viewpoint about the high-tech initiatives coming down the pike.
“One thing we’re interested is machine communication,” he said. “We are working with spectral soil analysis so that we can bring infrared and X-ray images of fields quickly, at a lower cost, to farmers.”
Hodgson explained that information technology has had a limited role in farming, not because innovation wasn’t feasible, but agriculture is a different kind of market.
“The cost of market adoption is tremendous in agriculture,” he said. “The distribution system is narrow, and new products have to work well right from the start. There’s not a lot of room for creating products just to see if they sell.”
Hodgson pointed out that by using wireless, cloud computing and other technologies, farmers and markets are accessing better information, and this is advancing agriculture.
Hodgson’s company is one of many in Fargo, North Dakota, a city that has emerged as a Silicon Prarie hotspot and hosts Microsoft’s third largest campus. Many in Fargo’s ag tech scene are following in the footsteps of pioneers who established the Great Plains, including some descendants who are turning to information technology to sustain and even reinvent their family farm.
Ag Solutions for the 21st Century
Ag tech clusters like the ones in Salinas and Fargo have sprung up around the world to figure out how to solve some of farming’s biggest challenges. With a global population expected to reach 8.5 billion by 2030, according to United Nations’ estimates, a vision for Ag 2.0 is required to help feed the world’s people.
In Israel, the Agriculturale Research Organization (ARO), founded in 1921, has been studying how to make the desert bloom.
ARO is significant because its mission is not only scientific and environmental, but also geo-political as food self-sufficiency is an important part of the country’s national security. Today, ARO is focused on water conservation technology, climate change, sustainability and food safety.
Holland, second only to the U.S. in terms of exporting agriculture technology, is a long time ag tech innovator. The Dutch revolutionized the moldboard plow in the 1600s with a feature that turns the soil over. It remains an important design element in modern plows.
Today the country is home to more than 4,000 so-called agrifood companies including major players like Cargill, Monsanto, and ConAgra. Holland recently hosted its second annual platform for innovation, Dutch AgriFood Week. The event includes an Agri Accelerator Seminar for startups as well as Tedx talks on the future of farming and food.
Each ag tech hub has a different disposition, but they share a similar desire for innovation.
“Farms in South America, especially here in Argentina, are large operations and aggressively want technology advances” noted Ciro Echesortu, Program Coordinator for the Buenos Aires-based NXTP Labs, an early-stage fund for ag tech companies in Latin America. The company launched its first fund in July of 2016 and plans a second one this summer. The goal is not only to spur development but to keep South American farm technology companies close to home.
“What does it take to have an ag tech hub?” asked Dennis Donohue, the former mayor of Salinas.
“First, you have to have a culture of innovation already in place,” he explained. “And, you have to have a place to innovate, a place where you can deploy and evaluate new technologies.”
Donohue currently heads up initiatives for the Western Growers Center for Innovation and Technology. He said Salinas, with its proximity to Silicon Valley, is attracting entrepreneurs eager to bring transformative technologies to agriculture.
“I may be biased, but I think Salinas is the best ag tech platform on the planet.”
The massive farmland, stretching from central California to the interior of Mexico, with its connection to Silicon Valley entrepreneurs positions Salinas well as an agriculture technology leader. While farming-meets-information-technologies is the current zeitgeist, it still needs to be fully developed.
“About 25 years ago, I was taking a marketing class in the Silicon Valley area,” said Jeff Lusheg, a produce consultant. On the first day of class, as the students introduced themselves around the room, most identified themselves as engineers or marketing people in high tech.
“When I described what I did in the produce industry, everybody just cracked up laughing as if it were the most bizarre thing they’d ever heard.”
That’s obviously changed, he said.
“The culture that you find in Salinas is you never know if the farmer you see wearing jeans and driving a pickup truck is an MBA from Harvard or Stanford,” Lusheg added. “There are some very tech-savvy people here.”
Supporting Future Ag Tech Innovators
Excitement about the future of farming isn’t limited to entrepreneurs bringing new technologies to the fields. It’s about educating the next generation of farmers and workers. Maggie Malone, director of the K-12 STEM program at Hartnell College, oversees a project that provides free classes to children, many of which come from farm worker families. These classes include subjects like coding, math and aerospace.
“Most of the parents aren’t well-educated and they don’t have the resources to pay for something like what the STEM program offers, but they see the results,” she said. “It’s amazing.”
Hartnell’s STEM program started just five years ago with a grant from NASA. Malone was the only teacher — a part timer — but since then she has gone full-time and added a staff of 10.
“We were mandated to serve 625 students per year with the money that they gave us. But very quickly we doubled and tripled those numbers, so we went out and got extra funding from private sources.”
Soon enough, the college started a partnership with Salinas to create a CoderDojo program.
“Every time we get a new grant and a new request for the program it makes me shiver,” Malone said, adding that she watches her students take the excitement of technology with them as they go higher in their grade levels.
“They are the future of Salinas.”