Salinas Valley Tries to Position Itself as Hub of Ag Tech Boom
Salinas produce on display during the Forbes Reinventing America AgTech Summit. (Krista Almanzan/KAZU)
The new Taylor Farms building anchors downtown Salinas. It’s a company built on three generations of farming, a fixture in the Salinas Valley, but perhaps just as important to the future of this region is what happened recently in the temporary tent set up just out front. It’s enormous -- the type of tent you’d find at an outdoor wedding.
“We have a coming together of two valleys -- the Salinas Valley and Silicon Valley,” Noglows says.
This union comes after several years of courtship. Agriculture in the Salinas Valley is typically a family enterprise, and business is often done with people you know. Silicon Valley entrepreneurs have traditionally been treated with a dose of skepticism.
No one knows that better than John Hartnett of SVG Partners, an investment firm that the city of Salinas hired a few years ago to help connect the two regions around the growing industry of agricultural technology.
"The tech industry has to earn the respect of the ag industry," Hartnett says, "and also listen to the challenges of the industry."
Hartnett offers a quick tour of some numbers to explain why Silicon Valley is interested in the farm sector. He says investment in ag tech rose from $900 million in 2013 to $2.25 billion in 2014 and is expected to hit $4.2 billion this year.
But to get in on that, Hartnett says entrepreneurs need to be where the farmers are.
“The next big thing isn’t going to happen in Palo Alto in ag tech if you are not talking to the main experts ... the agriculture leaders, growers and farmers," he says.
That means understanding the needs of people like Bruce Taylor, CEO of Taylor Farms –- the company with the new building downtown. It produces bagged salads and fresh-cut vegetables. He says the industry is looking for all sorts of solutions, from ways to reduce pesticides to dealing with the labor shortage.
“It goes from planting to processing to distribution, and so there can be thousands of new products, new ideas that will help us propel the industry forward,” says Taylor.
So in the new Taylor Farms building, there will also be a new Center for Innovation and Technology, to be run by the Western Growers Association. It will be a place where ag tech entrepreneurs can find mentorship from the farm industry and make contact with potential investors.
“I don’t think Silicon Valley has any sort of monopoly on innovation,” says tech entrepreneur and angel investor Ali Partovi. He was on the ground floor of Facebook and Dropbox, and more recently has been interested in ag tech.
“To me, the word Silicon Valley is more of a philosophy, and so as far as I’m concerned this building -- whether it’s here or anywhere else -- you can think of it as representation of that philosophy of innovation and disruption,” said Partovi.
And that's a philosophy from Silicon Valley that will have a permanent home in the Salinas Valley when the innovation center opens in September.