If you’re eating a salad for lunch today, there’s a good chance it came from California’s Salinas Valley, the rich agricultural area an hour’s drive south of Silicon Valley where more than two-thirds nation’s leafy greens are produced. There’s also a decent chance it got to your plate with the help of a robot.
Farming fresh produce has always been a high-precision, labor-intensive operation compared to crops like corn and wheat. But faced with the declining availability of farm labor and a growing demand for sustainable and healthier fresh produce, agricultural producers in the Salinas Valley are working to rely less on people and more on technology. And, perhaps counterintuitively, the city of Salinas is doing its best to help them.
The 160,000-person city, where the average age is only 28, is partnering with investors, agricultural companies, and universities in an attempt to lure startups and equip its own workforce with new skills. With coding camps, entrepreneurship trainings, and a new startup accelerator, its aim is to cultivate a farming tech cluster, just as many Internet startups exist in San Francisco Bay area and biotech startups in Boston. (They call it the Steinbeck Innovation Cluster, but if the great American author John Steinbeck were alive today, it’s hard to imagine him approving of his hometown’s buzzwordy-use of his name. Or the robots.)
"We want to attract startup companies from around the world, not just the Salinas area," says Bruce Taylor, CEO of Taylor Farms, a 10,000-employee business headquartered in Salinas that says it's the world’s largest supplier of freshly-cut vegetables. "We can get them going, nurture them, and then they can roll out their product across the country."
Take one company, the Boston-based Harvest Automation, which was one of 10 startups admitted into Salinas’s new accelerator program in December. The 30-person firm is making a robots that do what its name suggests, but so far are only deployed in greenhouses. Now the company wants to expand to farmed fields, especially the area's large berry suppliers, like Driscoll’s.
"Some of these ideas are new ideas and potentially big ideas, but we as robotics people living in Boston are not going to be the ones who prove it out," says Harvest Automation CEO John Kawola. In other words, the Salinas program, with more than a dozen mentors in the industry, offers access to real-world conditions and real-world farmers that nearby Silicon Valley companies like Google—which is also launched its "Farm2050" initiative last November—don’t have.
Taylor Farms is already on a drive to helps its supplier farms and its own operations become more efficient, as the sector faces labor shortages in the fields and rising minimum wages in production plants. Many Americans have left the farm work of John Steinbeck’s time, and in the last few years as the Mexican economy has grown, the number of migrant workers who come to California to do these backbreaking, low-wage jobs is also declining.
"Agriculture will become teched-up, not because new machines will put large number of farmworkers out of work, but because our children—and now increasingly Mexico’s children—are not growing up to be farmworkers," says J. Edward Taylor, an agricultural economist at the University of California-Davis (and unrelated to Taylor Farms). "The bottom line is that agricultural producers have no choice but to use new, innovative labor-saving technologies and management practices."
Bruce Taylor, of Taylor Farms, cites new farming technologies aimed at doing what humans can’t: Drones that produce hyper-spectral images that determine which crops are diseased or predict the ripeness of an avocado early than farmers can by hand. Other tech is aimed at assisting human workers in the field and on packaging lines, making each person more productive and improving their working conditions, as well as addressing concerns health and environmental concerns like food safety and pesticide and water use. Still other advances, like robotic harvesters in the field or Amazon-like robots in warehouses, could replace humans altogether.
Overall the drive is towards precision agriculture. "Right now you farm a field, you fertilize the whole field, you spray the whole field. Eventually, we’ll do it plant by plant."
It’s easy to see why a growing focus on technology is beneficial for farming and fresh food businesses and even for consumers. But it’s much less obvious for anyone concerned with the opportunities that incresed automation leaves the future workforce. For Salinas, the focus on tech started with a crisis in 2012, when Capital One acquired the city’s largest employer, a credit card company, and soon announced it would move operations to a much cheaper locale in South Dakota. One thousand jobs disappeared like that.
"We jumped in to say: what should we be doing? How do we get those jobs back?," says Salinas mayor Joe Gunter. "We went through all the strengths of the region and realized that right at our doorstep we had agriculture and technology. That was a big ah-hah moment for us."
J. Edward Taylor, of UC Davis, says Salinas is unlikely to become a major R&D center for agriculture, especially with Silicon Valley and UC-Davis as existing major research centers nearby. But as the city hopes, it could be a great place for testing and deploying services that make labor-saving technologies available to farmers. The startup Harvest Automation, for example, says as it expands, it would hope to open a office with a service center and applications engineer in Salinas.
Investors see the the big picture for the Salinas Valley as world population grows, and with it, the middle class expands. "That’s where all the action is happening," says John Harnett, CEO of SVG Partners, the investment firm backing Salinas’s new accelerator program. "That middle class is very aware of the connection between health, food, fitness, and technology. We believe that fresh food is really going to accelerate."
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