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tom nassif

WGA’s Tom Nassif on Need for Agtech Amid California’s Farmworker Shortage and Immigration Policy Uncertainty

April 12, 2017

It’s now been over a year since Western Growers (WGA), the member association for west coast fruit, vegetable, and permanent crop farmers, opened the doors of its Center for Innovation and Technology (WGCIT) in Salinas. In January 2015 it started with six startups and is now home to 35

With the idea of bringing agtech entrepreneurs closer to the farmer they’re aiming to serve, the Center provides desk space for startups and organizes various events aimed at facilitating this interaction, and helping its startups flourish.

In January 2015 it started with six startups and is now home to 35 with more startups in the pipeline which will take it past its original target of 30-35 businesses.

Since launching WGCIT has hired former mayor of the City of Salinas Dennis Donohue to lead the center. It’s also partnered with some of its residents on projects, including AgFunder alumnus SWIIM, to help farmers conserve water and earn money for any unused water. And, it’s helped startups develop new technologies such as HeavyConnect’s Pesticide Use Reporting tool.

Ahead of his speaking engagement at the Ag Innovation Showcase in UC Davis next month, we caught up with Tom Nassif, president of WGA to find out more about how the center has developed, and what hot button issues he thinks entrepreneurs should be addressing with their technologies.

How has WGCIT grown compared to your vision for it?

We usually have lofty expectations but this has exceeded them for the short time we’ve been open for business. We are now up to 35 startups in the Center with more in the pipeline. It’s grown very quickly past our original target of 30-35 startups. We’ve learned a lesson that you’re not limited by the number of desks or hot desks because many people aren’t there full time. Thirty desks might accommodate 60 companies because they’re not there all the time. Often they want to have an address in Salinas and a place to meet when they’re in town meeting customers but have their headquarters somewhere else.

We do want to have the opportunity to bring innovation to other areas as well and just recently we had an event in Fresno, which was more dedicated water. It was nice to be able to go to an area like Fresno, which is a main harvesting area, and provide these events and insights.

Why do you think WGCIT has grown so quickly?

I believe it’s because of the unique role we play. As a non-profit, WGA’s mission is to enhance the profitability of our members and we do that in a myriad of ways, the most recent of which is this center. We seek to serve as matchmakers between the industry and the innovators to create commercially viable technology that provides solutions to agriculture’s most vexing and immediate problems, not the least of which includes the rapidly diminishing resources both human and natural. We are playing that role with no profit motive for ourselves, which makes us a perfect intermediary for the startups and our members.

Does WGCIT cover its own costs with the price of renting out each desk?

The Center does not run on the income derived from tenants; it does so from the 20 or so sponsors that support what we’re doing for the industry. We want to make it affordable for startups to have a base here and if they can’t afford the current rates, we try to provide grants to make it affordable.

Which technologies have been especially popular among Western Growers members?

What we’ve found is that many of our members have found technologies they believe can assist them in resolving especially water and labor problems. And sometimes this means they’ve invested directly in those companies as well as created pilot programs with them. We encourage them to do that to make sure the technology is efficacious.

Many have invested in mechanization, both to thin and harvest vegetables, as well as some investments in robotics that can sort strawberries with a visual device that decides whether or not a berry is ripe for packing and shipping. If we can cut down on the labor-intensive aspects of production, that would be helpful to make up some ground. Strawberry harvesting is very intensive, as are lettuce and broccoli which require very heavy labor.  Without immigration reform and a useful guest worker program in the US, we need to try and develop ways to rely more on our own ingenuity and tech solutions rather than on the government.

Are you concerned about future immigration policy?

I’ve been heavily involved in immigration policy for a number of years and I negotiated on the ag immigration bill in 2013. I am looking forward to working with the Trump administration on immigration reform for agriculture as soon as the administration is ready to start discussing what that bill should look like.

What are your priorities when it comes to farmworker immigration?

The important priorities are how to deal with the existing workers that are deeply entrenched in this country, have worked hard, paid their taxes and been good citizens. The blue card program we proposed in 2013 would give workers that had worked in the industry for a given amount of time, and paid their taxes and obeyed the law, the opportunity at a future point in time to get a pathway to citizenship. 

In the future, I’d love to find a way to give farmworkers the ability to come and work in the US for a given period of time, either on a contract or with guaranteed work. It could also give them portability so they could move from farm to farm if they found better working conditions elsewhere and so they wouldn’t be tied to just one farmer.

Guest farmworkers represent just 2-4% of the entire workforce and we’re unable to get people into the field in time for harvest; the industry is understaffed. The H2A program has not worked; the process is lengthy and cumbersome and the fact that it requires employers to provide housing is a great deterrent. How do we house them? In California you can’t just find land for farmworker housing because the local residents don’t want them in their backyard. The answer we put forward in the 2013 bill was to provide them an allowance to find their own housing.

Is labor a bigger issue in California than water use right now?

The labor shortage has nearly doubled; the Obama administration deported 2.5 million people and clamped down on illegal immigration and deterred people coming to the US to work. Now with the change in administration, the media has frightened farmworkers into believing they will be deported and separated from their families when in fact the president has said that’s not his target; his target is felons, not farmworkers.

On the water front, we have a few innovators on the weather side that are finding ways of monitoring water use, while also being able to determine how much water is needed and where it’s needed so that instead of irrigating a multitude of acres, maybe there’s just a zone within that acreage that really needs irrigating and that’s a great savings device. We have found a lot of interest in that sort of technology.

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