Ag-tech incubator aims to grow smart farms
By Deborah Luhrman
Photography by Patrice Ward
When the E. coli outbreak in spinach decimated Salinas Valley’s bagged salad business in 2006, Taylor Farms turned to technology.
Even though Taylor was not one of the companies directly involved in the outbreak, it was devastated as consumers panicked and rejected bagged lettuce and spinach from any source.
Realizing that there is no room for error when it comes to food safety, Taylor Farms teamed up with two entrepreneurs to create SmartWash, a computerized system for salad wash lines that monitors water temperature, pH and chlorine levels. If anything is out of range, the computer automatically shuts down the line, guaranteeing that greens will not be contaminated with E. coli or salmonella.
“There are now at least 70 lines in the United States that use SmartWash. We sell it to everybody,” says Taylor Farms founder and CEO Bruce Taylor.
He and fellow members of the Western Growers Association, a trade association representing farmers in California, Arizona and Colorado, are hoping to replicate that kind of success by incubating new agricultural technology businesses at the Salinas-based Western Growers’ Center for Innovation & Technology. The center was preparing for a September opening just as this issue of Edible Monterey Bay went to press.
The center occupies 3,000 square feet on the ground floor of the new Taylor Farms headquarters, adjacent to the National Steinbeck Center, and has workspace for 30 high-tech startups in a bustling hub of events, demonstrations and previews.
“I hope it will be a vehicle for innovation and an incentive for smart people to move into our area,” says Taylor, whose company is donating space for the center. It will form the third leg of the Steinbeck Innovation Cluster in Salinas, which already includes educational programs and the Thrive Accelerator project. Workstations in the center will rent for $500 a month, and “hot desks,” which are workstations shared by more than one employee, will be available for $250 a month.
Taylor says he gets dozens of high-tech pitches every day, but most of the projects are not relevant to his business. “You get entrepreneurs who think they have a great idea, but it doesn’t solve a specific problem that we have,” he explains.
By putting tech entrepreneurs in close proximity to California’s largest ag companies, it’s hoped they will be in a position to turn local fields into “smart farms” by discovering new ways to reduce waste, use less water and reduce energy consumption, while at the same time increasing yields and automating certain farm tasks.
The Salinas Valley is home to a $9 billion a year agriculture industry that produces 60% of the nation’s leafy greens and 30% of the nation’s strawberries. In addition to Taylor Farms, some of the local produce giants include: Dole Fresh Vegetables; Mann Packing; D’Arrigo Brothers (Andy Boy); Chiquita (Fresh Express); Ocean Mist Farms; Earthbound Farm; Driscoll’s; and Tanimura & Antle.
Not only will tech entrepreneurs be able to rent space in the new center, they also will be mentored and offered legal advice on how to form companies and partnerships.
“Western Growers wants to vet the new technologies and make recommendations to our members,” says association president and CEO Tom Nassif. Western Growers has invested close to $500,000 to launch the Center for Innovation & Technology and has allocated an operating budget of “several hundred thousand a year,” but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
“To start with, we’re also providing investment funds of $4–5 million to finance promising technologies,” Nassif says. “After that we can go possibly up to $50 million if there are enough members who want to get involved.”
What’s more, at the Forbes AgTech Summit held in July in Salinas, it was announced that venture capital from Silicon Valley—60 miles to the north—is pouring into agriculture. “Ag has been one of the laggards in adopting technology, but it’s catching up fast,” said Forbes managing editor Dan Bigman.
According to AgFunder—a group that matches innovators with investors—venture capital in the ag sector has skyrocketed from just $400 million in 2011 to $2.4 billion in 2014 and a projected $4.2 billion in 2015.
Clearly, there’s a new kind of green growing in the Salinas Valley.