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A City Turns To Lettuce Fields To Grow High-Tech Startups

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A City Turns To Lettuce Fields To Grow High-Tech Startups

The Industry

A City Turns To Lettuce Fields To Grow High-Tech Startups

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Melissa Block. Salinas, California, is an hour south of Silicon Valley, but generations behind when it comes to technology. Its sprawling lettuce farms are stuck in the era of shovels and rakes. City officials there are trying to change that and also spur some job growth by investing in high tech agriculture. We have this report from KQED's Aarti Shahani.

AARTI SHAHANI, BYLINE: At Taylor Farms in Salinas, Andrew Fernandez steps on heads of crunchy romaine lettuce and makes his way over to a very big tractor.

ANDREW FERNANDEZ: We can't get those knives, the water jet knives, underneath that. They blow the heads apart. They cut the heads in half.

SHAHANI: The water jet knife is the cutting edge, no pun intended, of lettuce farming technology. Water pistols shooting at 20,000 pounds per square inch are supposed to pick the lettuce up out of the ground. But the knife keeps killing the crop. Fernandez is the vice president of product and he's willing to change his product to something this machine can handle.

FERNANDEZ: We're spending money and time right now to try to figure out an upright, light-bulb-shaped lettuce that tastes the same as iceberg, that could give us the shelf life in the bag.

SHAHANI: Lettuce is backbreaking work, far behind tomatoes and cotton when it comes to machine automation. But now, fewer and fewer migrants are coming from Mexico, so farm owners have to invest in technology. And as harvester Israel Luceto(ph) points out, the new machines are also opening up the fields to new workers.

ISRAEL LUCETO: You notice right here, we got more women, like 70 percent women versus men.

SHAHANI: The worker shortage on the farms is creating an opportunity for people like Tom Taggart.

TOM TAGGERT: We can climb onboard. Inside this compartment up here, we've mounted a mini Mac computer and it houses the lettuce program that does all this magical stuff.

SHAHANI: Taggert is the technology director at Foothill Packing, an ag-tech startup in the city and he demonstrates this lettuce thinner that's controlled by a Mac.

TAGGERT: The driver probably has limited computer aptitude can get on here and operate this at the lowest common level. It's a touch screen and just a push of a series of buttons.

SHAHANI: The tractor thins out heads of lettuce by using cameras and sensors to direct the nozzles to spray a killing agent.

TAGGERT: The system says, OK, burn these, save that, burn these, save that, burn these, save that.

SHAHANI: The final product: Heads of lettuce that are exactly 10 inches apart, not a quarter inch off. And the Mac sends off a digital record of the crops in real time.

TAGGERT: Pretty slick stuff.

SHAHANI: The smart tractor seems very slick, but it's pretty simple when you consider what the neighbors over in Silicon Valley are doing with their digital tools. The city of Salinas is trying to speed up the game of catch-up by becoming an investor.

RAY CORPUZ: We've put in close to $300,000.

SHAHANI: Ray Corpuz is the city manager and he says Salinas has something no one else has: the best lettuce fields in the country. So why not turn them into laboratories and attract tech investors? Salinas hired a venture capital firm. Corpuz says it's a dramatic move. Last year, the single largest employer, Capital One Bank, shut down its local branch and over 800 people lost their job.

CORPUZ: So the economic setback was probably $60 million annually in payroll, which was quite a hit for us.

SHAHANI: These unemployed workers are not going to pick lettuce for $9.50 an hour, but they would work for ag-tech companies. The venture fund is trying to raise $50 million to pay for a startup incubator. When Corpuz tells other city managers about it, they look at him a bit cross-eyed.

CORPUZ: It's risky. Sounds like a great idea, but it sounds risky.

SHAHANI: Salinas residents don't have much to lose by trying. On a Saturday morning, laid-off workers from Capital One and college kids like Jessica Landa show up at the local community college to pitch their ideas.

JESSICA LANDA: I'm 20 years old right now and basically, the pocket house is a tiny micro-grid home, built with several sustainable aspects, such as, like, solar panels so that you don't have to connect to a macro-grid.

SHAHANI: The next step is for the Salinas native to take her plan to Silicon Valley investors. For NPR News, I'm Aarti Shahani in Salinas.

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