Last week I attended a conference in Salinas, California, which is known as “the salad bowl” of the country. More than 70 percent of all the lettuce grown in the United States is from the Salinas Valley.
Sponsored by Forbes Magazine, the AgTech Summit was the brainchild of former Salinas Mayor Dennis Donohue and entrepreneur Bruce Taylor. Donohue is also a produce grower and marketer of vegetables, and Taylor was born and raised in Salinas by a multi-generation produce-growing family. He is also the founder and CEO of Taylor Farms, one of the most successful privately held companies in the country.
Donohue and Taylor’s vision was to find a way to connect the agriculturally rich Salinas Valley with nearby Silicon Valley, where innovation, disruption, and technology are incubated daily.
Why would they want to connect agriculture to technology? To convince the technology hub of the world to use some of its brainpower and innovation to assist the food industry with a few of its biggest challenges, namely limited water, limited labor, and changing weather patterns.
And as the story was told to me, their PR person made a random called to Forbes Media to assess their interest in being involved in an agriculture/technology conference. Turns out Forbes was not only highly interested, the company immediately agreed to take the lead role in the conference!
You can read about the program, speakers, and field trips we took on the conference website. But I’d like to share with you what I found most interesting and what I learned during my two days in Salinas.
- One of our field trips was to Hartnell College. I had heard about Hartnell over the years and thought it was your typical community college. What I didn’t realize was that the local produce industry has significantly partnered with Hartnell, resulting in the college now offering multiple degree programs in every aspect of agriculture. The industry has successfully developed a pipeline of future employees, who are trained with skills, first-hand knowledge, and a deep understanding of the industry.
- Several case studies were shared of matchups that took place at last year’s premier conference between technology start-ups and existing agricultural companies. I admired that these newly formed partners were willing to “open the kimono” and share the inner details of their working relationships, the funding that they did, and the progress that has been made. This showed me that the greatest leaders see the benefit of sharing best practices from their own success, even with their competitors. They know that the entire industry is only as strong as its weakest player.
- GMOs were discussed. An impressive collection of experts made presentations. One of the speakers was Julie Borlaug, associate director of external relations of the Borlaug Institute of International Agriculture at Texas A&M University. I was so excited to introduce myself to Julie, as her grandfather, Norman Borlaug, was the first person in the world to have won the Nobel Peace Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the Congressional Gold Medal. Norman did more to eliminate hunger in the world, with his innovative breeding approach to wheat, than anyone. Julie quoted her grandfather many times during her presentation. And much of what she said really resonated with me:
- If you want to eliminate hunger, you cannot be anti-innovation (in breeding).
- When someone has questions or concerns about GMOs or any kind of breeding or gene-editing programs, ask them “have you ever been to a farm?” Do you actually know what a “GMO” is? She reiterated that the most important thing we can do is make sure people are educated on the realities of hunger, breeding, innovation, etc.
The president and COO of Forbes Magazine, Mike Federle, attended the conference. It might surprise you to learn how I know him.
About six years ago, I was on an airplane flying from Charleston, South Carolina, and sat next to his daughter Allie. She is the same age as my eldest daughter. We struck up a conversation about flying, which she disliked, and I shared with her some of my experiences when I learned to fly an airplane when I was 25. At the end of the flight, I gave her my business card and we have kept in touch over the years. She connected me to her dad.
Who knew that a random meeting on an airplane would end up allowing me to be on a first name basis with the president of Forbes? That taught me that networking can happen when you least expect it. During the AgTech conference, I collected more than 30 business cards. I wonder what business opportunities will come from those new connections?