More than 600 attend annual Salinas Valley Ag Tech Summit

Contributed Photo

SALINAS — More than 600 people with a stake in technology’s pivotal role in agricultural production, distribution and sales came to Hartnell College on March 27 to learn and share best practices at the sixth annual Salinas Valley Ag Tech Summit.

True to its theme of “Tomorrow’s Technology You Can Use Today,” the 2019 summit spotlighted innovations that yield increased productivity and strategic advantage in an era of rapid change. Presenters and exhibitors focused especially on the produce industry of the Salinas Valley and greater region of California’s Central Coast.

In a midday keynote address, Gabriel Youtsey, chief innovation officer for the University of California Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources, said agriculture is poised on the verge of a generation 4.0 that builds on widespread adoption of automation, computers and electronics.

“Industry 4.0 is really taking it to the next level, where we have the ‘internet of things,’ we have devices that are connected in real time,” Youtsey said. “So not only do we have the machines, but they’re interconnected, and the decision support and automation they provide offer really a next-level advancement in our industry.”

Hartnell Superintendent/President Dr. Willard Lewallen, who welcomed attendees to the summit and the college, underscored the relevance of agricultural technology to the college’s mission of education and public service.

“The drive to improve efficiencies in agriculture is the confluence of several factors, not the least of which is long-term global population growth and the demand for higher quality, higher nutritional value food,” Lewallen said, noting that world population is projected to reach 9.7 billion by 2050. “Hartnell College is committed to being a part of the innovation and creativity needed to find solutions to this global issue.

“Hartnell is already an institution with excellent agriculture and agriculture-related education programs and services. With the support of the agriculture industry, the college has become a leader in agriculture education and training.”

Following an opening reception the evening before, the summit’s main day began at 7 a.m. with a series of continuing-education sessions organized by Hartnell’s event co-presenter, the Monterey Chapter of the California Association of Pest Control Advisers (CAPCA). Their focus was on integrated pest management, which combines biological, cultivational and chemical methods to control weeds, destructive insects and plant disease.

The summit’s panel presentations continued all morning on parallel educational tracks of ag business and ag production. Standing-room audiences crowded in for such topics as use of aerial drones to collect digital crop data, educational programs at all levels to maintain a nimble and skilled ag-related workforce, and automation to optimize irrigation within the limits of California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.

In Hartnell’s Student Center and on the lawns and walkways around its central STEM Building, 79 exhibitors showcased products that included enormous tractors and harvesting equipment, systems that wirelessly monitor soil moisture and nutrients and drones that shower helpful insects onto fields below. Several Hartnell students also shared their ag-related research in the STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Within the increasingly broad umbrella of ag technology, the subject of food safety ran throughout several of the day’s events, including a morning keynote address by Dr. Bob Whitaker, chief science and technology officer for the Produce Marketing Association.

Whitaker keyed off this past fall’s outbreak of E. coli 0157:H7 in romaine lettuce that took the leafy greens off grocery shelves and restaurant menus for weeks until it was declared over on Jan. 9. Sixty-two people in 17 states reported becoming ill as a result, and 25 who were hospitalized.

“I know this community has gone through a lot in the past year, lots of ups and downs,” Whitaker said. “It’s been a real roller-coaster ride, and I know it’s caused great pain amongst folks here, where markets seemed to go away overnight and there was a consumer advisory on the product that you’re raising.”

Reducing the incidence and severity of such outbreaks will require a comprehensive and intense effort by the agriculture and food industries to maintain safety and consumer confidence, he said.

“The solution to what we see in food safety is not only in California, and certainly not only in leafy greens or romaine,” Whitaker said. “It’s right here in the audience. It’s the people in the industry. It’s that commitment to change that we need to make.

“I want you to think about what’s being said and what you can take back to your operation, to your job, your internship — wherever you might stand along the supply chain to make your programs better and make them more risk- and science-based.”

One of the morning’s last sessions featured Suzanne Livingston of IBM, who outlined the company’s blockchain-based FoodTrust products, for which she is national director. Originally devised for the digital currency Bitcoin, blockchain employs unique, interlocking and immutable digital information to trace the path of products along their supply chain — in this case food, from field to fork. Walmart is one of IBM’s FoodTrust customers.

“Once we have the chain of data, we can give you the trace,” Livingston said. “We can show you for a specific food product or a specific lot, where it’s been in its journey. And then what happens is, with this linkage, if all parties are sharing data with each other, then you can see what’s happening at the store, and the store can see all the way back to you.”

Among the hundreds of industry professionals soaking up information from the panels, speakers and exhibitors were dozens of Hartnell student volunteers, who assisted with registration and helped greet and direct attendees. College classes were not in session because of Spring Break.

One of them was Aaron Rivera of Soledad, an agricultural business major, who plans to work in some area of ag-related sales after graduation.

“This particular convention, the ag tech part of it, is kind of focused on drones or automated machines, which would include the tractors,” Rivera said, as he toured the exhibition area following his volunteer shift. “It helped me understand the parts of the machines, and at the same time, circulating through here I was able to meet eye to eye with what employers are looking for.”

That combination of learning and up-close contact with technology and technology experts was a fundamental goal of the summit, said Nick Pasculli, who chaired the 2019 summit planning committee and is CEO of TMD, a produce-focused marketing firm in Salinas. His co-chair was Eric Schwartz, CEO at Spreckels-based United Vegetable Growers Cooperative.

Pasculli thanked summit sponsors, who were led by presenting sponsors Converted Organics, Scheid Family Wines and Tricord Tradeshow Services.

Diamond sponsors were: Nutrien Ag Solutions, TMD Creative and TMD Technology Solutions, the City of Salinas.

Platinum sponsors were: American AgCredit, the Monterey County Agricultural Commissioner, Monterey Bay Community Power, Wells Fargo, BLUETECH Valley and Chevron. Educational track and other sponsors were: Bay Area California Community Colleges, Christensen and Giannini, Misionero, Neil Bassetti Farms, Top Flavor Farms and Western Growers.