Mar 19, 2021
Innovation can lead the way, California ag secretary Ross tells ag summit

Karen Ross, secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, told a March 18 opening night audience for the Salinas Valley Ag Tech Summit that innovative problem solving is itself an essential export of California agriculture – and the fresh produce industry in particular.

According to a news release, the online summit continues March 19, opening at 9 a.m. Pacific, and free registration is available at The website also contains a full schedule and links to virtual expo booths for event sponsors.

“Agriculture, especially California agriculture, is global in nature,” Ross said, “and if we can meet the challenges that our own state presents to us, that climate change presents to us, that our water challenges present to us, that our food safety compliance issues present to us – if we can solve those here, we are the living laboratory, and we will also continue being the innovative ideas that are exported around the world.

“Part of what is driving entrepreneurship and innovation are the very challenges that we’re presented,” she said, “and because we’ve got the university system and we’ve got the venture capital, and we’ve got the people who part of legacy families.

“When you’re the fourth or fifth generation of your family, that’s a lot on your shoulders: How do we keep this going? How do we bring in the new talent that we need to make sure the next five generations can also do that? We’re going to figure that out, even if it’s a vexing problem of today.”

Ross shared her admiration and optimism via Zoom during a “Fireside Chat” conversation with Dennis Donohue, director of the Western Growers for Innovation and Technology.

The dialogue capped the summit’s opening night, which also featured remarks by Dr. Raúl Rodríguez, interim superintendent/president of Hartnell College in Salinas, and Miguel Gomez, a 2020 graduate of Hartnell in agricultural production. The college is co-presenting the summit with Western Growers.

Gomez, a Salinas native, is enrolled in a new soil and plant sciences bachelor’s degree program at Cal State Monterey Bay while also working full-time in sales and operations for Taylor Farms, where he completed an internship while at Hartnell.

He shared the following advice with the many high school and college students who were watching the program online:

“Don’t fear change. Always raise your hand and say, ‘Here, yeah, I’ll do that. And anything else?’ And above all, be willing to learn. You don’t have to get it right, you just have to get it going.”

Today’s program includes a full schedule of panels and speakers that reflect the increasingly international dimension of the produce industry as well as its exponentially increasing complexity, especially in terms of acquiring and training a workforce equipped for its changing needs.

Ross’s conversation with Donohue covered a wide variety of topics, including the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on fresh produce growers and shippers.

She praised the industry for keepings its produce flowing into supermarkets at a time when some goods, notably paper products, became nearly unavailable. She also noted the challenge of adapting to consumers’ sudden shift from eating out to buying food to prepare at home.

“I can’t imagine, in the Salinas Valley, when you’ve got a production line that’s all about food service, that’s all about packaging that’s very different – and a very different marketing channel that it is if you’re just dealing with retailers,” Ross said. “We didn’t let people down, and we figured out how, working with the FDA, we can repurpose some of the food service packing stuff to get into retail, and just pivoting and adapting.”

She related the ability to safeguard workers and adapt the supply chain during the pandemic to decades of innovation in leafy greens.

“Few people can appreciate, I think, the logistics brilliance of the produce industry, I mean right here in Salinas,” Ross said, “so when you think of the timelines of getting things out of the field, through the plant and across the country in how many hours – or around the globe – that’s a logistics marvel that I think of few people have an appreciation for that started in ag. And it works; it really, really works.”

Today’s summit program will open with a keynote co-presentation by Dennis Donohue, director of the Western Growers for Innovation and Technology, and Ted Taylor, president of Mission Ranches and Seco Packing.

The packed schedule will continue with a wide-ranging discussion on “Grower and Tech Issues and Education, Training and Workforce Challenges,” featuring Leon Brish, co-founder and CEO of FarmDog; Mariana Valdez, soil science manager for Ag-Wise Enterprises Inc.; and Sebastien Boyer, co-founder and CEO of FarmWise, which made Time magazine’s Best Inventions of 2020 list for its autonomous weeder.

Another featured session will be “The Importance of Education and a New Kind of Worker,” with a high-profile Central Coast panel made up of Tom Nunes a fourth-generation farmer and president of the Nunes Company, a premier grower-shipper with production in California, Arizona and Nevada; John D’Arrigo, president, CEO and chairman of D’Arrigo Bros.; and Miles Reiter, CEO and chairman of Driscoll’s. The moderator will be Brie Reiter Smith, director of Driscoll’s quality systems design, supply chain.

Also, two sessions will be presented in Spanish, with English translation, spotlighting both “Mexico and the Americas: Grower Issues” and “The Startup Scene.” Among the Latin American presenters are Tomás Peña, co-founder of S4, one of Argentina’s earliest AgTech start-ups and a leading driver of the AgTech ecosystem across Latin America; agricultural economist Elisa Blanco, offering a global perspective on water as co-founder of the Center for Water Law and Management in Chile; and Jairo Trad, a software developer, data scientist and entrepreneur with business in six Latin American countries and the United States.

Visit the event webpage at to learn more about this year’s program and sponsors. For further information, contact the Ag Tech Summit Team at [email protected].

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