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California’s ‘Salad Bowl’ is cultivating more than crops

November 30, 2016 at 6:20 PM EST
In California's Salinas Valley, known as the "Salad Bowl of the World,” a push is underway to expand agriculture's adoption of technology. The mobile app HeavyConnect, for example, enables farm managers to track personnel and equipment efficiently. Special correspondent Cat Wise reports on how such innovation is providing new opportunities for the Valley's largely Hispanic population.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: California’s Salinas Valley is often called the “Salad Bowl of the World.” Roughly 70 percent of the nation’s lettuce crop is grown there, along with plenty of other produce.

Special correspondent Cat Wise traveled to the region to take a look at some high-tech innovations being used to improve production.

Her story is part of our weekly series covering the Leading Edge of science and technology.

CAT WISE: As the sun rose over the fertile land of Salinas Valley, California, one recent morning, a group of farmworkers waited to sign in for their shift, not on paper, as they normally do, but on an iPad, where an app has their name and job assignments already programmed in.

They are using HeavyConnect, a new mobile communication app designed to help farm managers keep better track of equipment and personnel. And the team that developed it were out bright and early to check in one of their newest customers, farm manager Sam Brigantino, who works for a large grower called Tanimura and Antle.

Co-founder Jessica Gonzalez walked him through a new update.

JESSICA GONZALEZ: You see the times they worked, and if they had any breaks and meals, it would be in between there. The jobs they did here, the legal statement.

SAM BRIGANTINO: Yeah, I like the pull-downs much better on this one.

JESSICA GONZALEZ: Basically, the functionality and flow is all the same. It’s just an update to the U.I.

CAT WISE: An app’s U.I., or user interface, is not a typical topic of conversation on most farms. But scenes like this are becoming more common throughout Salinas.

That’s because there’s a effort under way by many in the community to make this valley a bit more like a certain high-tech valley to the north. A very visible sign of that effort is this new Silicon Valley-esque office space. It’s an incubator for ag-focused startups that opened last December in downtown Salinas.

And it’s where HeavyConnect and a number of other small companies are now coding away, hoping to break into the $50 billion-a-year fresh produce industry. And that’s just in California.

PATRICK ZELAYA, HeavyConnect: We believe that, when it comes to ag-tech, if you can make it in the Salinas Valley, you’re going to be able to have a product that will be adopted globally.

CAT WISE: HeavyConnect co-founder Patrick Zelaya is a former John Deere sales manager who has spent a lot of time with farmers. He says he started the company because he saw a big need for a product that would help farmers get back something they have very little of: time.

PATRICK ZELAYA: In large-scale farming, the job is a 14-hour-a-day six days a week. What’s not commonly known is that farmers spend more time on the administration, managing the operation, than they do farming. So, HeavyConnect provides farmers the ability to know what’s going on in their farm operationally without having to be there.

CAT WISE: Other companies here are working on a host of new products for soil testing, food safety, crop monitoring. And on the day we visited, water was the focus.

WOMAN: Good afternoon, and welcome to Western Growers Center for Innovation and Technology tech talk, with our guest, SWIIM System.

KEVIN FRANCE, SWIIM System: Thank you, Lisa.

CAT WISE: Kevin France is heading up a company that aims to help farmers monitor and manage their water usage. Water management is a hot area for innovation, given California’s ongoing drought.

KEVIN FRANCE: So what is SWIIM? We are your on-farm water accountant. We are like the QuickBooks for ag water.

CAT WISE: Dave Puglia is an executive with the Western Growers Association, a large trade group which is funding and running the new center. He says farmers want these innovations to succeed as much as the developers do.

DAVE PUGLIA, Executive Vice President, Western Growers: Farmers have been innovative from the dawn of time, but our own members recognized that the collision of forces that are impacting their ability to stay in business, the regulatory pressures, resource pressures — we have less water available. We have less of a work force available to us.

So, this center is designed to bring the best of Silicon Valley, the best minds in technology and innovation, closer to the best farmers in the world, and speed the innovation that can solve those problems.

CAT WISE: The scenic Salinas Valley is less than an hour’s drive from Silicon Valley, the innovation hub of the country. But, in many ways, the two areas could not be more different.

Unlike the high-income, mostly white and Asian population of Silicon Valley, Salinas Valley is about 75 percent Hispanic. Many here work in the fields or packaging plants, jobs that are often hourly and low-paying. There are pockets of extreme poverty, high crime, and poorly performing schools.

And for the area’s many young people, there are few economic opportunities.

RAY CORPUZ, Salinas City Manager: There aren’t the jobs yet for them. But we want to create that opportunity.

CAT WISE: Ray Corpuz is the city manager of Salinas. He and other community leaders are very supportive of the new focus on technology, but he wants more of it to be home grown.

RAY CORPUZ: We’re looking for our citizens, our community, the people that live here to actually run the new machines, provide the new applications, to make technological innovations. So, we have to have a skilled work force.

CAT WISE: That future tech-savvy work force is now being developed in this classroom. These college students are enrolled in a new, unique program. They will be earning a computer science degree in just three years.

Half of that time is spent at the Salinas community college, called Hartnell College, and they finish up at a nearby state university, CSU Monterey Bay. The highly competitive program is called CSin3, and the students attend classes year-round.

Many in the program are the first in their families to attend college, and thanks to a local, well-known grower who has established a large scholarship, their tuition is paid for.

ZAHI ATALLAH, Hartnell College: Only 6 percent of the computer industry is women. Only 3 percent are Hispanic. Our classrooms? Majority Hispanic. At least 50 percent of our students are women.

CAT WISE: Zahi Atallah is a dean of academic affairs at Hartnell. He says that while there is a big push to get more students into higher-paying tech jobs, the school is also trying to encourage local youth to pursue other good-paying careers, like welding and farm equipment maintenance.

But regardless of what they end up doing, Atallah says the students’ understanding of this community, and the overall ag business, will be a big benefit.

ZAHI ATALLAH: Many of those students are farmworkers themselves and kids of farmworkers. Imagine what they’re bringing to the table, having the background of farming, having lived it themselves, because they can create and innovate faster and most effectively.

CAT WISE: One of those using her past experiences in her new career is HeavyConnect’s Rivka Garcia. She was born and raised in Salinas, and worked in a produce processing plant, before graduating earlier year from the CSin3 program.

Garcia is now using all her skills, including coding, to help make the company’s app more intuitive for those who will be using it.

RIVKA GARCIA, HeavyConnect: I worked with a lot of people that didn’t understand how to use technology. And creating an app that is easy to use, that won’t confuse them and will get the job done, and will be really similar to what they do on paper, but is more efficient, is, I think, a big thing that I bring to the table.

CAT WISE: The HeavyConnect team is now working on a new app feature that will allow farmers to monitor their equipment using Bluetooth sensors, and Garcia is leading that project.

For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Cat Wise in Salinas, California.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And Cat’s report is also part of our Breakthroughs coverage of invention and innovation.

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