New York Ag Tech Week
Session 1. Opening Panel.
At the Silberman School of Social Work in East Harlem NYC Ag-tech week, 2016 Kicked off with a panel discussion led by Henry Gordon-Smith of Blue Planet Consulting and passed along to food tech & thought leaders: Rob Laing of farm.one, Ed Harwood of Aero Farms, Stephen Ritz of The Green Bronx Machine, and Katherine Soll of Teens for Food Justice.
The panel named real estate, a lack of qualified labor and talent, job training, the ongoing sustainability due to energy consumption, and aesthetic appeal as current challenges in our industry.
Opportunities were listed as: an emergence of ag tech leaders, the potential of job training partnerships, possibilities for urban farm certifications, standardization for architecture integration, and tech distribution.
It is evident to me that given the rapid advancement of ag-tech and the collaborative atmosphere shared by anyone I have ever met within the controlled environment space these emerging leaders have endless opportunities. W also have a self-awareness of shared responsibility to step into the roles each of us have been fortunate to align with. Each small farmer, supplier, innovator, connector, and industry guide shares an obligation to step up and solve some damn important problems. The trickle up and down of agriculture affects everybody and everything of importance on a local and in turn global scale. It is no longer enough to stay on the sidelines. Everyone from consumer to producer must play a bigger role in their self-accountability. Creating change is never easy, but I have never been around a group of people so forward thinking & positive about their work; which is vitally important.
Food safety was a concern as small growers are susceptible to lack of proper equipment, education, and due to tight margins might miss critical intersections of contamination prevention. At this point, many small farms are accountable for the safety of their crops at every stage. Have we given small farms all of the tools necessary for safety from seed to end-user?
Capital interest in agriculture seems to be diverted to large traditional ag operations. While examples of start-ups for indoor ag are out there, it is a small percentage. The industry will need long-term integration of ecological & financial data to gain access to deep funding pockets. I am thankful for the people openly sharing surveys and data to help the industry as a whole, like Agrilist’s industry survey by Allison Kopf. http://stateofindoorfarming.agrilyst.com Keep in mind the sharing & collaboration of information is rampant among the people pushing these barriers.
Changing the mindset of the next generation, changing the minds of people willing to change given the resource of education and opportunity will prove to be critical if we are to move forward. This young industry is being led by sharp young people and seasoned businesses who get that towing the same old line can’t continue. People in all socio-economic areas can & do make changes when given the chance. Unfortunately, that chance comes with hard work, dedication, & lack of funding. It takes special people to lead people who are not even aware there is a problem.
Angel investments demand returns on investments. Often a startup has to sell off focus to get the signed contracts in hand to show a positive cash flow. Sometimes these quick sales diminish the original vision & purpose of the innovation behind a new farm model. At the same time, we must recognize that trend crops can not sustain a start-up of the industry. Micro-greens and designer greens are a part of the equation, not the answer to sustaining a profitable farm. We cannot be romantic about saving the world of hunger if we can’t afford to pay our operational costs.
New farms have to learn that selling to Whole-Foods isn’t the holy grail, at least not in the first years. The lack of knowledge of industry ins & outs concerning specs, expectations, laws, sanitation, market fluctuations will frustrate & hinder the grower without a clear business plan and more importantly, correct mentoring.
More to come
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