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Forbes Ag-Tech Summit shines the spotlight on the Salinas Valley

By Luis M. Alvarez

As dawn broke over downtown Salinas, California on this past July 9th and the sun’s rays started to warm the chilly Thursday morning air, those who looked toward the 100 block of Main Street were greeted with a very unusual sight. Not only was the entire block closed to vehicular traffic but taking up most of the entire block was a large white tent, a structure that was rapidly filling as hundreds of people from around the world converged on the Salad Bowl of the World to learn more about how technology was going to help agriculture help feed a growing world population, one expected to reach over 10 billion by 2050.

Thus began a very hectic day of panel discussions and presentations at the AgTech Summit presented by Forbes Media as part of their Reinventing America Project, which has tackled issues such as manufacturing and workforce improvement in the past. The executives at Forbes understood the daunting challenge facing agriculture as the population continues to increase and they considered it worthy of an event dedicating to figuring out how we can increase food production by over 70 percent to feed all those new mouths. Not only will all those new citizens of the world need more food, they are also more likely to want healthier, fresher food alternatives like those famously produced in the Salinas Valley.

The AgTech Summit didn’t disappoint, starting at Constellation Winery on the Wednesday evening before the big event on Thursday with a keynote speech delivered by the chairman of Forbes Media, Steve Forbes, who urged all those gathered to work to resolve some of the most pressing issues facing agriculture around the world, including water shortages. In addition to the presence of the chairman of the board, the event at Constellation featured tabletop demonstrations from a number of small, start-up companies who were showing off their agriculture-focused technology products and services.

The AgTech Summit didn’t happen in a vacuum, however. It was the culmination of the efforts of the City of Salinas, the Steinbeck Innovation Foundation and the Silicon Valley investment group SVG Partners, LLC, led by chief executive John Hartnett. (Note: In the spirit of full disclosure, I serve on the board of directors of the Steinbeck Innovation Foundation.)

The driving force behind the group is Taylor Farms CEO Bruce Taylor, who kept pushing to group to shoot for the sky and not settle. (This may also explain why the Forbes tent was situated on the 100 block of Main Street, right next to Taylor Farms brand new headquarters building.) For several years now, this partnership has been talking up Salinas as the epicenter of the intersection of agriculture and technology, traveling around the country and speaking to anyone that will listen. That led eventually to several conversations with Forbes Media and the decision to host the AgTech Summit in Salinas.

The Forbes team had one specific requirement: They wanted the event to take place in Salinas and not in Monterey, which is typically where convention-type events are hosted. The folks at Forbes wanted the people coming in from around the world to experience farming in the fields and not just on a presentation on the screen. That aspect of it was appreciated by the dozens of attendees who participated in the optional field and plant tours to learn what agriculture in the Salad Bowl of the World was all about.

One of the highlights of the day was the announcement of the winners of the Thrive Accelerator program run by SVG Partners in association with Forbes, the Western Growers Association and Verizon. Ten technology start-ups with products focused on the agricultural industry completed over the course of a year to secure funding and draw attention to their products. Two were announced as winners during the AgTech Summit: California Safe Soil, which won the Sustainability Award for developing a unique process for recycling supermarket vegetable discards into a liquid fertilizer; and Nuritas, which won the Innovation Award for using Big Data analytics and artificial intelligence to unlock the secrets held by food and food by-products to develop health-benefiting ingredients.

Tom Nassif, president and CEO of the Western Growers Association, also unveiled the organization’s plans to open something of an incubator for agricultural technology, the Center for Innovation and Technology, to be housed on the ground floor of the new Taylor Building in downtown Salinas. Expected to be open in the fall of 2015, the center will provide space for entrepreneurs and innovators to develop new ideas and concepts to help the agriculture industry meet the needs of the future.

As the final day of the event wound down, the Forbes Media executives as well as the local supporters of the AgTech Summit couldn’t have been happier about the results. Salinas was being seen in a new light, as the meeting place of technology innovation and agriculture. Forbes hopes to reprise the event next year, but whether that happens or not, Salinas is on the map as the AgTech capital of fresh food.

By: Luis Alvarez, originally published in Coastal Grower, Fall 2015 Edition

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