In the world of agricultural technology, all roads lead to Salinas.

The Western Growers Center for Innovation and Technology there now houses 31 startups, with more in the queue, said former Salinas mayor Dennis Donohue, who leads the center.
 
“We’ve been fortunate in that we have companies that seem to be sufficiently funded, working with some customers and kind of going through that development-deployment phase, so to some degree they’re all making, I think, good progress relative to where they expect to be,” Donohue said.
 
The companies at the center in Salinas have goals that range from saving water to improving nutrition to cutting paperwork to providing aerial images of fields.
 
BioLumic, a New Zealand company that treats plants with UV light to increase yield, flavor and resistance to diseases and pests, has been at the center for about a year. 
 
Two members of the company recently described stationing a scientist at the center as the natural next step in their process; if one wants to partner with a major company for a large-scale trial of ag tech — and BioLumic has done just that — Salinas is the place to be.
 
Programming at the center gives residents a chance to pick the brains of the companies they want to have as customers, with monthly events that feature a major player in the industry, and with demo days to which the industry is invited to see which startups are at the center and what kind of work they are doing, Donohue said.
 
Some produce companies, like Salinas-based Taylor Farms, are engaged in their own research and development as well.
 
Taylor Farms already has several automated harvesters and is working on others, along with using a significant amount of automation in its plant.
 
“We’re automating as quickly as we can in the field, but it takes a lot more time,” said Chris Rotticci, director of automated harvesting equipment for Taylor Farms. 

Labor availability and cost is a concern for growers around the country, with the workforce aging, the new administration’s rhetoric invoking fear among foreign workers, and — for California growers in particular — with the recent changes in minimum wage and overtime regulations causing expenses to increase.

“No. 1, you have to figure (out) what technology you can find that is somewhat applicable,” Rotticci said. 
 
“Robotics are becoming more readily available, but they’re more readily available in a controlled environment.
 
“When you introduce these really complex systems into the field, the consistency that they will work accurately, day after day after day after day, is challenging — and also on a moving piece of equipment,” Rotticci said.
 
Labor availability and cost is a concern for growers around the country, with the workforce aging, the new administration’s rhetoric invoking fear among foreign workers, and — for California growers in particular — with the recent changes in minimum wage and overtime regulations causing expenses to increase.
 
The automated harvesting machines Taylor Farms has designed reduce the labor needed for the specific commodities on which they are used, freeing up workers to harvest other commodities. 
 
In addition to increasing efficiency across the board, the machines also create more palatable field jobs.
 
“You’re up off the machine, you’re not bending over, you’ve moved more into a plant job that’s selecting-, sorting-, packing-focused, quality-focused, rather than focusing on your cut height and heavy knives and walking through the furrows,” Rotticci said. 
 
Rotticci describes these developments as a step in the right direction, though the road ahead is likely a long one, as Donohue also acknowledged.
 
“The product development cycle is a little bit different for ag,” Donohue said. 
 
“You have to go through a couple different seasons ... If you went through a season where it was relatively dry but (the technology) worked ... well, what happens if there’s ice, what happens if it rains, what happens if it’s windy?”
 
Along with improving some field jobs, the growth of ag tech — slow though it might be — is also increasing the number of jobs in the ag tech category.
 
One of the startups at the center, HeavyConnect, which works to free up time for companies by eliminating paperwork, hosted the center’s first ag tech talent meetup March 17. 
 
CEO Patrick Zelaya was surprised by the numbers of companies already looking to fill such jobs.
 
As more companies embrace technology, that number only figures to go up, and Salinas is likely to continue to be at the heart of the movement.