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Down on the (High-Tech) Farm | News & Opinion

On a recent business trip to Silicon Valley, I bumped into an East Coast transplant now living in the Bay Area. On his first day he’d driven down Sand Hill Road, where all the big VC firms are, and was mystified at the verdant setting of Menlo Park.

“This is all countryside,” he said, pointing to trees and low-slung, pale single-story buildings surrounded by live oaks. “Where are all the shiny skyscrapers full of hotshot tech types?”

“Manhattan,” I replied.

The myth of Silicon Valley is (very) different from Silicon reality. The Bay Area’s surprisingly lush surroundings were, until recently, just an added bonus to life in the tech rat race. But a generation shift means a growing awareness around human stewardship of the planet, climate change, food safety and traceability, and it has persuaded geeks, like Tesla alum Nick Kalayjian, to explore AgTech (agriculture tech) and engineering for the good of the planet.

For example, Kalayjian’s new employer, Plenty Inc, is working on vertical farms inside a reconditioned warehouse, which use minimal recycled water and no soil or pesticides. Gadgets like infrared cameras and sensors monitor and calculate water, air composition, humidity, and nutrients.

Plenty Inc vertical farms

Big names are also getting into the AgTech game. IBM Watson AI has been used to develop intelligent irrigation systems, while Adobe and Oracle have opened up rooftops and planted vegetable gardens, managed by Farmscape. Apple’s huge new Cupertino headquarters, meanwhile, has thousands of acres of fruit orchards rather than endless parking lots.

“The new headquarters seems to capture the essence of Silicon Valley before the tech boom, before the digital revolution supplanted the thousands of acres of orchards that blanketed this area with blossoms each spring,” said Barbara Krause, co-founder of Krause Taylor Associates, who served as VP of corporate communications at Apple in the 80s and 90s.

About 10 miles from the new Apple campus is the Elizabeth F. Gamble Garden, which is overseen by garden director Richard Hayden. A Los Angeles transplant, Hayden previously worked at the Natural History Museum of LA County and has long used sensor technology to manage climate and soil issues, but was pleasantly surprised to see the tech community’s interest in its surroundings.

“AgTech advances are powering great change within our field,” said Hayden. “Mass-scale irrigation technology filtered down to digital device irrigation controllers which provide precise commercial and residential irrigation, drawing in smart weather and sensor information.

“I’m currently investigating proximal soil—and gas releasing—bio sensors to advance the quantification of soil biology. These will increase the efficiency of organic soil fertility, a vital starting point as we look to improve our stewardship of the land.”

Silicon Valley Forum Talks AgTech

This shift in thinking is partly due to the leadership of the nonprofit Silicon Valley Forum. Next week, it’s scheduled to host an AgTech forum, where innovators and state officials, like California’s Secretary of Agriculture Karen Ross, will talk about creating automated farms, using blockchain for food safety traceability, deploying drones, and how the big tech firms are getting involved.

Blockchain is of particular interest, Denyse Cardozo, President and CEO of Silicon Valley Forum, told PCMag, “Farming today requires significant data collection, and blockchain solutions could help minimize the efforts it takes to keep a steady overview,” she said.

“We have also introduced a water technology element this year—especially timely considering California’s ongoing drought and the recent onslaught of wildfires,” Cardozo added. “Smart tech solutions are being used to cut down on waste and collect asset data and analytics in this field.”

It’s not all speeches in a ballroom, though. “Participants will be visiting many facilities to get first-hand experience of innovation taking place within AgTech. Highlights include: Bowles Farm in Los Banos, a six-generation family-owned farm with water-saving technology best practices, and Yamaha Motor Ventures who invest heavily in state-of-the-art precision agriculture technologies,” Cardozo said.

Naturally, artificial intelligence is part of this equation. Mika Jha, founder and CEO of AgShift, a former IBM executive who is speaking at the forum, is designing an autonomous food inspection system based on deep-learning models.

“We started researching what causes waste [in the food chain] and why,” Jha wrote to PCMag in email. “We saw inconsistent inspections or quality assessments [lead to food rejection], which usually happen because of the subjective nature of how those are both done. We use AI to make inspections more objective and consistent for the entire food supply chain, building a digital transparency on inspections [from the] bottom up.”

So next time you’re driving around Silicon Valley, look beyond the buildings and the robot security patrols, and know that AgTech innovation is taking place far beyond the cubicles or C-Suite lairs today.


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