July 14, 2015 – The once sleepy streets of Oldtown Salinas are beginning to look a lot more lively, with 400 employees moving into the new Taylor Farms HQ this week. The 5-story neoclassic building occupies a full city block at 150 Main St. adjacent to the Steinbeck Center. “Bruce Taylor designed it purposely without a cafeteria, so workers would have to get out at lunch time,” said Salinas Chamber of Commerce President Paul Farmer.
Participants in the Forbes Ag-Tech Summit last week were the first to experience the new HQ at a reception in the courtyard. The building and the summit—held out in front in a tent—offered a glimpse of the future for Salinas Valley ag.
“We’re at the epicenter of the Ag Tech revolution, where the Salinas Valley and Silicon Valley meet,” said Paul Noglows of Forbes Media, organizer of the July 9 summit which attracted more than 400 farmers, tech entrepreneurs and venture capitalists. The premise was how technology is going to help farmers produce more food to feed a world population that is forecast to reach 10 billion by 2050.
“The farm of the future is going to incorporate a lot of tech for scouting what is going on in the fields, using satellites, planes and drones,” predicted Barrett Mooney, CEO of HydroBio. “It’s going to be a lot more digital, but with farmers making the ultimate decisions so that crops get just the right amount of water and nutrients they need and use data to learn how to do it better next year.”
Speakers agreed that farmers will need to learn to produce more using fewer resources—like unlimited land and water—and with greater government regulation. They will also need to meet increasing consumer demand for organic produce.
“Demand for organic is enormous. One quarter of Americans are devoted organic shoppers,” said speaker Ali Partovi, a Silicon Valley investor and partner in Farmland LP. “In a survey, 91% of Walmart shoppers said they wanted to buy organic and producers are kind of freaking out about how they can keep up with the demand.”
“We need advances in biology and in productivity,” said Neal Gutterson, vice-president of Agricultural Biotechnology at DuPont. “Yields need to be doubled in American fields and doubled or tripled in other parts of the world.”
Without discussing GMOs directly, speaker Robert Fraley—CTO of Monsanto and controversial winner of the 2013 World Food Prize—admitted that consumer resistance has made things difficult, but insisted that corn yields still need to be increased from 170 bushels an acre today to 300 bushels an acre by 2050. Fraley argued that brand-new genome-editing technology “is taking us above and beyond what GMOs can do.”
“Genome editing is going to be extremely important for the next 20 to 30 years. It will help us get really improved unique varieties and accelerate traditional plant breeding techniques to improve disease resistance, for example,” said Gutterson, whose company—DuPont—in June bought an exclusive license for genome-editing technology.
Other entrepreneurs embraced a more low-tech approach, with Ron LeMay, CEO of the Kansas City-based FarmLink, promising to become the “über of ag” by launching a farm equipment sharing economy. “Combines cost up to $500,000 and on average are used about 7% of the time,” he said. “93% of the time they are idle.” FarmLink—which currently operates in 27 states—is about to launch a website where equipment owners can put their machinery up for lease and those who need a tractor or a combine can go to rent one.
According to the website agfunder.com which matches ag innovators with investors, venture capital investment in the ag sector is skyrocketing from $400 million in 2011 to $2.4 billion in 2014 and a projected $4.2 billion in 2015.
Forbes managing editor Dan Bigman summed up the summit like this: “Ag has been one of the laggards in adopting technology, but it’s catching up fast.”