Vegetable Growers Are Working With Silicon Valley to Disrupt Farming

The ag industry and tech start-ups are collaborating to make agriculture more efficient and productive.
A farmworker hoes a row in a lettuce field near Salinas, California. (Photo: Brian van der Brug/Getty Images)
Feb 8, 2016· 4 MIN READ
Gionni Ponce is Participant Media’s Assistant of Advocacy and Social Impact.

Nestled between the Gabilan and Santa Lucia mountain ranges in Central California is a 90-mile stretch of land that produces strawberries, lettuce, tomatoes, spinach, broccoli, and wine grapes by the ton. As a major producer of fruits and vegetables, the Salinas Valley has come under increasing scrutiny for the large amount of food that goes to waste. Over the course of just a few months, the Salinas Valley Solid Waste Authority will take in between 4 million and 8 million pounds of fresh vegetables. Food is wasted at every step of the supply chain—from farm to fridge to fork.

But with more focus on waste, the drought, sustainability, and other issues related to the resources used to produce the food we eat, the industry is asking new questions of itself—for example, how can ag revolutionize the way it produces food?

Western Growers Association, an ag trade group, hopes to find an answer—or answers—at its new Center for Innovation and Technology, in Salinas. The association, which represents farmers in Arizona, California, and Colorado, is working to build an unlikely coalition between farmers and technology entrepreneurs. The partnership seeks to address some of the country’s biggest food concerns—from waste to water issues related to California’s historic drought.

Related: Farming Without Water

The center opened last December with the simple, daunting mission of figuring out how to feed a growing world while using fewer resources. To do so, the center wants to bring Silicon Valley–like thinking to a valley better known for growing lettuce. “Salinas is the salad bowl of the United States,” Tom Nassif, president and CEO of Western Growers Associated, told TakePart. Its proximity to Silicon Valley and the Bay Area, he said, makes the region ideal for cross-pollination between the ag and tech sectors. The center offers a workspace with the usual office amenities—printers, conference rooms, kitchens—as well as mentorship and networking opportunities for fledgling agriculture start-ups.

The low rent the companies pay is subsidized by the center’s sponsors, including Taylor Farms and JV Smith Companies, which provide financial support to foster growth for budding ag ventures. According to Nassif, the idea for the center “emanated from a couple of our board members who had been very interested in investing in agricultural technology that would benefit the entire industry and not just themselves.”

One of the center’s main goals is to be the link between tech companies and farmers to ensure that the products going to market are the best they can possibly be. “So often people have wonderful technology that isn’t necessarily commercially viable,” Nassif said, later adding, “If you can put them together with the farmer before they go out into the market, they’ve already gotten that input and they know what the need is.”

The center also hopes to address the concerns of a rapidly evolving consumer base. “We understand that more and more people are becoming concerned about a number of issues, including whether or not these crops are being grown sustainably,” Nassif said. “Are we using too many pesticides? Or is it too labor intensive? Are the workers being taken care of and treated as they should be?”

The center, which has enough space to house 34 companies, has 10 resident start-ups in its building. These companies vary in focus. Some are data-oriented, while others are working to improve quality of product or recycle waste. The center’s staff vets the tech firms, though it doesn’t have specific requirements for joining. “We have a fairly firm understanding of what the needs in the industry are,” Hank Giclas, Western Growers’ senior vice president of strategic planning, science and technology, told TakePart. “We have an overriding premise that we want the center to be a place where start-ups can come and help us, as an agricultural industry, produce more food with less resources.” Ultimately, they are focusing on several problems: water availability, labor availability, environmental performance, and waste reduction.

California Safe Soil, one company in the center’s initiate class, is working to reduce food waste by collecting unsellable produce from supermarkets and using it to create its signature fertilizer, Harvest2Harvest. Daniel Morash, founder of CSS, developed H2H in response to a pressing need. “People have been using food waste as fertilizer since the beginning of agriculture,” he said. “Historically, there hasn’t been 30 to 40 percent of the food supply wasted. This is a situation that has gotten out of control. We’re trying to put it back into balance.”

The patent-pending process only takes three days, making H2H production far faster than traditional composting. CSS supplies supermarkets with its specially designed double-insulated containers in which employees can place food that is past its prime—food that would otherwise end up buried in a landfill and contributing to methane emissions. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the impact of methane on climate change will be 25 times greater than carbon emissions over a 100-year period.

Every other day, CSS collects the food and takes it to its processing plant, where the organic material undergoes an aerobic enzymatic digestion process that mimics the human digestive system. Using heat, agitation, and enzymes, the waste is converted into amino acids, fatty acids, and simple sugars that can be used to enrich the soil with the nutrients farming strips out of it. The process is very efficient: It not only requires zero water input but also recycles 100 percent of the waste used. A full 90 percent of the waste becomes H2H, while the other 10 percent can be used as livestock feed. Once it’s all done, CSS is left with a nutrient-rich, organic liquid that can be added directly to a farmer’s current irrigation system.

With the process fine-tuned at this point, CSS is now more focused on getting the word out. According to Morash, the company’s statistics on increased crop yield are so good, potential H2H customers don’t always believe it. “It’s called snake oil and things like that,” Morash told TakePart. “There’s a healthy dose of skepticism. Put yourself in the shoes of the farmer. They’re being approached all the time by people who say they have this great new product when they don’t.” H2H, according to Morash, is an exception. The company says trials have shown a 25- to 30-percent yield increase for strawberries grown with H2H. They have also seen large growth responses in raspberries, blackberries, and blueberries.

CSS hasn’t yet had much opportunity to connect with other businesses in the center. “It’s all pretty new,” said Morash, who plans to use the space as a springboard to opening a commercial-scale plant in Salinas, which would be its second production facility. Last week the center held its kick-off event for 2016 programming. Business development is a key part of the center’s strategy as it maps out upcoming opportunities. Several events are in the works, including monthly Q&As with agriculture CEOs, opportunities to pitch ideas to leading companies, and lectures from industry experts.

The center’s goals are not mutually exclusive. Though it recently added two new companies to its office, HarvestPort and Specright, it’s looking for more. It also plans to develop its programming to provide the companies with the business tools they need—protecting patents, marketing their products, company legal structures—to aid in the start-up process. Nassif wants “to get these products in the marketplace as soon as possible so that we can all benefit from the new technology.”