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Agricultural Innovation at Forbes AgTech Summit

“How many members of the public are aware that agriculture lifted over 1.2 billion people out of poverty in the recent years?” asked Steve Forbes – Chairman & Editor-in-Chief, Forbes Media – while delivering the opening remarks at the Forbes AgTech Summit 2017. The event, one of the most important events on innovation in agriculture in the U.S., took place at the edge of Silicon Valley in Salinas, CA, on 28th–29th June 2017.

Steve Forbes enumerated and praised the achievements of the agricultural sector, highlighting that agriculture is the most technologically advanced industry of the world. Starting from genetics and going all the way through agricultural machinery and ending at the industry’s logistics, the sophistication of the sector is a great surprise for an average citizen.

The Forbes AgTech Summit allowed its participants not only to celebrate and reflect on the achievements of the sector, but also think about the future. Even though the fear of the unknown is natural human behavior, the track record of successful innovation in every industry should make us optimistic about the future. Starting with adoption of the most popular robot: tractor, through the green revolution of Norman Borlaug in Mexico and India, and ending on the example of Israel: the tiny country located on the desert now uses 10% less water in comparison with 1948, when it achieved independence. Needless to say, during the same time population on Israel increased tenfold and agricultural production sixteen-fold!

The Forbes AgTech Summit was a priceless lesson on how to innovate in agriculture. As it turns out the key to success is co-operation. In Salinas Valley, as well as in the Central Valley, a complex ecosystem of agricultural interests exists at the very root of the agricultural success in the region. Starting with very strong family farms, such as Taylor Farms, the main sponsor of the event, all the way though effective logistics and ending with co-operation with education providers, everyone works together to utilize fantastic growing conditions of the region. This join effort results in the Valley’s being the very center of specialized agriculture not only in the U.S., but globally.

Two topics returned time after time after time in Salinas: water management and supply of skillful workers in agriculture. The growers complained that they are “data rich, but information poor” when it comes to water management. A few farmers told stories of testing water sensors, which told them about problems only when those were visible with a naked eye, which is way too late to do anything in order to rescue crops. And because it is too late, thousands of dollars are lost. Therefore, work on truly smart sensors has to continue. Such sensors should be able to identify non-conformity to the standard before it becomes visible to a human eye, which would provide much needed insight to farmers.

Growers have been brainstorming about the future of employment in the sector. The second generation of immigrants to the region does not want to work in labor-intensive agriculture and the sector should not be surprised at all about that. Moreover, the skills needed in order to contribute in agriculture are evolving rapidly: today instead of the strength of muscles, the sector needs more engineers, programmers, technologists, marketers and storytellers.

Those forces make agriculture extremely attractive sector for young people to enter. The problem however is that only a few young people are aware of those opportunities. Only those directly connected to farming are aware of the potential of the sector. Therefore, lowering the barriers of entry, as well as conducting outreach activities focused on attracting youth to agriculture, is highly and urgently needed in the sector.

Trent McKinght – the Founder of AgriCorps and the former President of FFA (Future Farmers Association) – noticed that now everyone can enter a farm, or ranch, take a photo out of context, for example of a dead calf, and post it on-line. Within minutes such photo will reach CNN, scandal will emerge and, as a consequence, the prices will fall. Given the above it is no surprise that farmers are reluctant to engage with the public, concluded McKnight.

It is tempting to label agriculture as a boring sector. Yet, in fact, it is one of the most exciting industries to be in with a transformational potential, as advocated by The Centre for Industrial Development. Tapping into this potential is by no means easy. However, hard work, combined with co-operation and access to long-term capital, which is currently missing at the market, does pay of, as proven by numerous participants of 2017’s Forbes AgTech Summit.

Mateusz Ciasnocha is constantly on a mission to “unleash dormant potential.” He specializes in agriculture, energy, and Africa, and is also passionate about innovation and entrepreneurship. Mateusz currently studies at ESCP Europe Business School and the University of Oxford, where he is receiving a Masters in Energy Management and Philosophy Certificate, respectively.

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