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Farm-to-Fork Live!: Technology for the Food and Ag Economy

Farm-to-Fork Live! is broadening across the region… [it is an] opportunity to show the ag-tech and food-tech assets that we are growing in our community.” City of Woodland Mayor Xóchitl Rodríguez

Part I: Introductions to Ag and Food Technology Innovation in the Region

On a balmy August afternoon, Valley Vision — together with Woodland Community College and AgStart — hosted “Farm-to-Fork LIVE! Technology for the Food and Ag Economy.” The event was the Season 1 finale of Valley Vision’s Farm-to-Fork LIVE! series, which features conversations on a range of topics, with leaders who are shaping the future of Farm-to-Fork in the Capital Region.

The event kicked off at Woodland Community College with welcome remarks from Woodland Community College President, Dr. Art Pimentel, and City of Woodland Mayor Xóchitl Rodríguez. President Pimentel highlighted Yolo County as a major agricultural area for the entire region, as well as the College’s role in preparing the region’s youth for the future and ensuring that there are opportunities for them to enter the workforce once they graduate. Mayor Rodríguez likewise emphasized food and agriculture as the base of the community, with food products being one of its top priorities.

Attendees listen to innovative Ag Panel at Farm-to-Fork Live! at Woodland Community College.

Following these welcome remarks,
Gabe Youtsey, Chief Innovation Officer at the University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources, provided an overview of global trends in food and agriculture technology. Youtsey drew attention to the serious threats facing sustainability in agriculture — climate change, resource challenges, shrinking wilderness, a projected increase in food demand. One of the ways to address these threats, Youtsey asserted, is to pluck at the so-called “low-hanging fruit” in food and agriculture, such as making use of robotics or growing food indoors. In addition, there needs to be an agriculture innovation system in California that brings in and hosts new people; opens up the space for different disciplines to get together and understand each other; and considers how to develop the workforce and its entrepreneurs. View Gabe’s presentation here.

The focal point of Part I was a panel discussion with food and agriculture leaders Dr. Martin Ruebelt, Head of Global Consumer Research and Development at Bayer Crop Science and Dr. Amit Vasavada, Chief Technology Officer of Marrone Bio Innovations, Inc. Trish Kelly, Valley Vision’s Managing Director, rounded out the panel as its facilitator.

The panel began with self-introductions and overview of their respective companies – one a global life science company and one a home-grown company establishing a global presence. Bayer Crop Science harnesses cutting-edge agricultural and environmental innovations, in pursuit of “Science for a Better Life.” The company strives to deliver solutions that help maximize farm yields, secure harvests from devastating disease and pests, and keep living spaces healthy and vibrant.  In the same respect, Marrone Bio Innovations creates products from microorganisms isolated from samples collected from unique niches and habitats such as flowers, insects, soil and composts. Their proprietary technology enables them to isolate and screen naturally occurring microorganisms and plant extracts to identify those that may have novel, effective and safe pest management or plant health-promoting characteristics.

Led by Kelly, Dr. Ruebelt and Dr. Vasavada discussed the most recent technological advancements in food and agriculture; the implications of these advancements on individuals and society as well as the industry; and the region’s role as one of the world’s hubs for food and agriculture innovation.

On the market rationale for operatilng in the region.

Dr. Vasavada explained that one of the reasons Maronne continues to expand its research and development operations in the region is the education pipeline available at the University of California Davis. UC Davis, one of the leading agricultural universities, provides Maronne with interns who are a perfect fit, many of whom return to work fulltime for the company after graduation. Dr. Ruebelt echoed this sentiment, describing the region as a powerhouse for academia, industry, and farmers to come together. He pointed out that people in the region have a passion and understanding of agriculture, having either grown up immersed in it, or gone to school for it, or perhaps both.

On emerging opportunities in the food and ag industry.

Dr. Vasavada submitted that artificial intelligence (AI) and sustainability are at the forefront of food and agriculture innovation. Additionally, he reflected on how to make use of data and information obtained in the field so that farmers can benefit. Dr. Ruebelt highlighted consumers’ desire for delicious, high-quality, organic food, and developing AI and robotics to address through the roof labor cost.

On current innovation relating to food and ag products.

According to Dr. Vasavada, the focus is likely to be on non-animal based products, such as almond milk and impossible meat. For Dr. Ruebelt, innovation in food will have a lot to do with the creation of new products enabling automation, in order to cut down labor and automize the process of growing and harvesting produce. Genetics can be controlled, but the real challenge in food growth is controlling the environment, especially because of the effects of climate change.

On regional support and the growth of the industry.

Dr. Vasavada emphasized regional partners need to help bridge the conversation between the people developing technology solutions for farmers and the farmers themselves. Additionally, they should fund students and give scholarships. For Dr. Ruebelt, regional partners need to continue the great effort of educating people on the advancements in agriculture, emphasizing how it is changing and evolving to address issues such as water quality, how to store energy, and how to feed people. This includes bringing science, technology, engineering, and math into schools early on.

Part I: Wrap-up

In their closing statements, Drs. Vasavada and Ruebelt reiterated the need to use technology in order to minimize inputs and maximize outputs, as well as the importance of sharing ideas, recognizing that one company cannot provide everything. The incredible ecosystem of food and agriculture players and partners in the region should be utilized to the fullest extent. The panel finished with an open forum, with questions and conversations that touched on information sharing; the accessibility of technology to small farmers; urban agriculture; and addressing ethical considerations related to new technology and processes.

Part I concluded with a brief presentation by John Hodgson on the proposed Woodland Research and Technology Park — a new technology hub going through the planning process in the City of Woodland, intended to serve an array of research and technology companies interested in locating and growing near U. C. Davis, and other research and technology institutions within the Sacramento region. 

Part II: the Entrepreneur Spotlight and Reception

It’s not just an office; it’s a family.” Anat Bujanover, Saturas USA, Inc.

Part II of the event was an opportunity for attendees to tour AgStart in Woodland and hear from entrepreneurs about their respective technologies, and the ways that AgStart and other partners have helped them expand their capabilities and the reach of their companies.

AgStart, is a non-profit business incubator that is accelerating the growth of innovative food and agriculture technology companies, and strengthening the region’s innovation ecosystem.  Its network-centric incubation model offers mentorship and connections, providing access to resources that new companies need to thrive. Through Economic Development Administration funding support, AgStart is a partner with UC Agriculture and Natural Resources in the Verde Innovation Network (The VINE), facilitating a statewide network of incubators and accelerators. AgStart Sponsors include Bayer Crop Science and HM. CLAUSE.

AgStart Program Director Leanna Sweha gave an overview of AgStart’s mission. Ken Hiatt, Assistant City Manager of the City of Woodland, communicated Woodland’s natural resources and culture of innovation have shaped the future of food and agriculture for over a century. He also highlighted The Food Front — a movement dedicated to keeping Woodland at the forefront of food and agricultural responsibility by cultivating existing relationships and warmly welcoming new ones. Supervisor Don Saylor, of District 2, Yolo County, elaborated on Woodland and UC Davis’ extensive network of collaborators, not just in the region, but in several other parts of the world as well. AgStart’s President John Selep introduced some of AgStart’s entrepreneurs and underscored the importance of their work in advancing food and agriculture technology in the region and around the world:

Anat Bujanover, General Manager of Saturas USA, Inc. Saturas, an Israeli irrigation company, is making its first USA home in Woodland at AgStart.  Eighty percent of farmers irrigate their trees without any scientifically-based information. This causes water waste, affects the quality and quantity of the fruit, and reduces profitability. Although stem water potential (SWP) is scientifically recognized as the most accurate measurement of water status in plants, famers today can only use a manual, labor-intensive procedure for SWP measurement for optimal irrigation. Saturas’ SWP sensor-based precision irrigation system provides a solution that combines accuracy, ease of use, and affordability. It involves embedding sensors in the trunk, which provides direct contact with water tissues for accurate and continuous water status measurement.

Dr. Fatma Kaplan, Chief Executive Officer of Pheronym. Pheronym is a Davis-based ag biotech start-up that relocated to the region from Florida; it develops nontoxic solutions for plant protection. It is a tenant in the UC Davis-HM. CLAUSE Life Science Innovation Center. Without pesticides, there would be 50-80% crop loss globally, representing billions of dollars of financial loss to producers. Farmers have to use pesticides, but toxic chemical pesticides are being removed from the market. Nemastim™, Pheronym’s patented beneficial nematode conditioner, provides a safe and effective way to direct beneficial nematodes to attack target insects in a “pack,” resulting in a 5X insect kill rate as compared untreated nematodes. Pherocoat™, its patented seed treatment, directs plant-parasitic nematodes away from healthy roots

Daniel Cathey, Chief Executive Officer and Co-Founder of Inputs. Daniel is a UC Davis graduate and home-grown entrepreneur. Inputs is an online agricultural marketplace which helps farmers obtain the best prices for their inputs while providing broader market reach, shorter sales cycles, reduced costs, and increased sales for retailers. Inputs addresses key pains facing growers and retailers, while bringing added value to both sides of the marketplace.

All three entrepreneurs noted the value they receive from being part of the region’s innovation ecosystem – the access to rich resources through UC Davis, AgStart, HM.CLAUSE, farmers, other companies, local jurisdictions, network partners supporting the food and ag economy, and overall community support. Attendees then had the opportunity to converse with one another while enjoying a selection of locally-sourced wines and snacks. 

Valley Vision is grateful to its partners for the opportunity to collaborate in bringing Farm-to-Fork to the forefront of community discussion and engagement. We look forward to continuing our work in this area, and we hope to see you at Season 2 of our series!  If you’d like to receive updates about future events, we invite you to subscribe to our Food and Agriculture newsletter by clicking here.

Look for information on next Season’s Farm-to-Fork Live Series!


Isa Avancena is Valley Vision Project Associate supporting our Innovation & Infrastructure impact area, as well as an Executive Assistant to Valley Vision CEO Bill Mueller, and Managing Director Trish Kelly.

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