Editor’s Note: AgFunderNews recently had the opportunity to speak with The Honorable Joe Gunter, Mayor of Salinas, on the relationship between agriculture and technology both in his home town and around the world. Mayor Gunter will be speaking at the Forbes: Reinventing America, The AgTech Summit in Salinas, which takes places July 8-9, 2015.
“There was a time when a farmer was a guy that just drove a pickup truck with a shovel and knew when to plant or harvest by going out to his field and taking a look,” says Mayor of Salinas, Joe Gunter. “They’ve gotten so smart about farming now. Using the currently available technologies they can get a lot more crops out of the field.”
Infamously referred to as the salad bowl of the world, Salinas boasts a $8.1 billion agricultural economy. Vast expanses of the valley’s lush and fertile fields are blanketed with rows of strawberries, artichokes, and lettuces. Salinas Valley’s soils are largely unparalleled when it comes to providing an optimal growing environment for produce. When driving through the valley, all one needs to do is roll down their window and take in the rich earthy aroma to know just how unique the region really is.
Mayor Gunter is set to speak at Forbes’ The AgTech Summit, which is part of the financial media giant’s Reinventing America conference series. Selecting Salinas as the summit’s location was no coincidence. According to Mayor Gunter, technological innovations have already become a critical part of the region’s agricultural affairs, particularly when it comes to remote sensors and precision agriculture. “They don’t have to waste time driving to a field, they can put sensors there that tell them how much fertilizer and water to use.”
Drones are also becoming more popular in the region. “Using GoPros attached to the drones they can look at their fields and tell which part needs more water and which part needs less fertilizer,” explains Mayor Gunter. The futuristic technology has also provided a successful way to shore up security on farmland, especially in a place like Salinas where valuable farming equipment and supplies are practically everywhere.
“Using these technologies farmers are going to make more money, but they’re also going to be able to feed more people.”
Salinas has been feeding people around the world for decades, but with the global population increasing and surpassing the food supply’s ability to keep up, Salinas Valley farmers feel the pressure. “When you look at our city of 155,000 people, agriculture touches everyone that lives here. Even the schools. It has a tremendous affect on what happens in our community.”
Fortunately, the same industry that provides income for most of Salinas Valley’s residents also provides them with a strong community bond, even between the major players and the smaller outfits. The region is home to some of the biggest names in produce, including Dole, Ocean Mist Farms, Taylor Farms, Fresh Express, and Mann Packing.
“There’s always going to be competition in the market, but now they’re realizing that there’s enough work for all of them. I think what we are starting to see now is more sharing of intelligence and information about making crops grow,” says Gunter. “By collaborating and using new technology, they can all find success.”
At the heart of this collaboration is a powerful sense of community, woven through many generations of farm families that have built their legacies on Salinas Valley soil. “Our produce people, including workers, companies, and purveyors, are probably the most giving people that anyone in the world would want to have as a neighbor. Whether it is a fundraiser for youth, cancer, or the local homeless shelter, the produce people come up with a way to make the goal happen,” says Mayor Gunter.
In addition to the responsibility it feels toward one another, as one of the most successful agricultural hubs in the world the community also feels a responsibility in terms of leading innovation in agriculture. “We are keepers of the Earth to some extent. We will continue to feed the world and we all have to work together and be on the same page. Finding new technologies to assist farming is part of that responsibility.”
According to Mayor Gunter Salinas’ best asset for accomplishing this goal is its tech savvy youth. “We have so many young people who can take what they learn about technology in school and put it to use in the industry. Especially kids who come from families that have been farming in Salinas Valley for generations. They have a vested interest in seeing their family business succeed.”
Salinas has already marked itself as a leader in many areas, including produce safety standards and recycling agricultural water. Around 2004, the FDA drew attention to the valley when it issued a warning letter voicing its concern over the frequent e.coli outbreaks linked to products from the region. In order to deal with the ensuing consumer and media attention, the region solidified its efforts to find new ways to combat contamination and heighten safety standards.
When it comes to the current drought crisis, Salinas Valley farmers are making sure that they get the most out of every drop. The region is infamous for developing pre-washed and bagged salad and lettuce, which is a virtual supermarket staple these days. In order to put the water used to wash the produce to good use, the farmers send it coastal areas where it is used to hold back salt water intrusion, or used in coastal crop operations.
When it comes to specific innovations, the Mayor sees a critical need for technological developments in packaging that find new ways to repurpose produce bags and containers. One of the valley’s most prevalent crops, strawberries, uses a particularly high amount of plastics, which provides weed control, insulation, and increased longevity for the plants. Some manufacturers in the region are turning the black plastic sheets into reusable grocery bags. Considering that Salinas is one of the many California municipalities that have banned plastic bags, its a good business to be in.
Mayor Gunter is ecstatic to host the upcoming Forbes summit and its attendees in his city, located only 45 minutes from Silicon Valley. “The conference is almost going to be like a big wedding between the two valleys. You’re going to see people from all different industries networking and discussing. I bet we are going to see some things that we’ve never thought of before.”
The Forbes summit isn’t the first inkling of Silicon Valley’s growing interest in the region. In April 2015, Western Growers raised over $4 million to fund agricultural innovation and the construction of a 5,000-square-foot facility on the ground floor of Salinas’ Taylor Farms building. Dubbed the Western Growers Center for Innovation and Technology, the facility will provide venture capital to entrepreneurs and startups developing solutions for farmers and agricultural professionals. The fund is managed by Silicon Valley Venture Partners, who also has a hand in the Steinbeck Innovation Cluster, another AgTech-focused organization.
“It’s going to be a pretty good marriage between the agriculture world and the technology world,” says Mayor Gunter. “I bet someday the mayor of this city is going to say it has a $20 billion produce industry.”
Forbes’ Reinventing America: The AgTech Summit will take place July 8-9, 2015, in Salinas, CA. For a full program agenda and list of speakers, click here.
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