There’s a bright green line connecting the industrial lots of West Oakland, running through the techie-filled precincts of San Francisco’s Mid-Market neighborhood, to the rolling green hills near the Pacific Coast in Pescadero. For two days, Orange Silicon Valley’s Micki Seibel led a contingent of reporters and entrepreneurs along this fil vert (French for “green thread”) as our sherpa to the growing array of Bay Area innovation around sustainable food systems.
The waypoints on this journey all had two common tenets: a vision of food production that is sustainable, even circular in nature; and an open-minded approach to the use of digital technology, especially data analytics, to optimize the use of resources and improve yields.
This thesis has broad appeal: participants in a conversation across two radically different kinds of farms, a Silicon Valley tech conference, and over some hyper-local and delicious meals included chefs, Harvard MBA’s-turned-founders, a veteran VC, a machine-learning scientist, biochemist, and yours truly. The arc ran from a visit to The Perennial’s aquaponics-based farm in Oakland, to the Silicon Valley Forum’s Agtech conference (hosted at Orange Silicon Valley’s event space), to the TomKat Ranch in Pescadero.
In the process we explored a cornucopia of advancements, not only in the production of food, but the entire supply chain. Indeed, the topic of food traceability was the focus for Micki Seibel and Food System 6 Managing Director Sara Williams’ co-curated session at the Silicon Valley Forum event. It was nice to see Deloitte’s Rich Nanda reference Micki and Sarah’s work in his presentation on just how urgently the global packaged food industry’s needs to get things right.
“Big Food and Beverage are now some of the least trusted industries on the planet, it didn’t used to be that way.”
-Rich Nanda, Deloitte
The event at Orange Silicon Valley made it clear this is not just a Silicon Valley thing but a global obsession. In the coffee breaks one could chat with entrepreneurs from New Zealand working with U.S. venture capital funds, mingle with breeders like Driscoll’s with varietals growing in 50 different countries, or schmooze with Dutch greenhouse growers.
But let’s face it, there is always a unique spin that the Bay Area gives to even the most basic things. Take grain for instance. S.F. chef Anthony Myint, founder of foodie mecca Mission Chinese, obsesses about soil health. The connection with grain is via kernza, which unlike most grasses is a perennial plant with deep roots (measured in feet not inches), that holds soil in place. Kernza is served at his new sustainable restaurant, The Perennial, across the street from Twitter HQ in S.F.’s Mid-Market.
To make that sustainable, the entrepreneurial restaurateurs truck the kitchen scraps from The Perennial back to a farm in Oakland where they are fed to maggots, which are then fed to sturgeon, which produce a liquid waste product perfect for growing vegetables and greens hydroponically.
One of the ways out of the global maze that is the Food Web of the 21st Century is to radically reconfigure it, specifically, truncate it by putting production closer to consumption. That is the mission resolutely followed by Sonia Lo as the CEO of startup FreshBox Farms, which she tells us is “the largest modular grower of fresh produce in the U.S.” That term “modular” is exactly what it sounds like: enclosures with controlled environments and tuned LED lighting that can grow food 24/7 and 365 days a year. In her presentation, Lo confirmed what many educated consumers intuit:
“Local has replaced Organic in the consumers’ mind.”
-Sonia Lo, CEO, FreshBox Farms
For the ultimate in Local, we walked the terroir of TomKat Farm in Pescadero. Kevin Watts, the integrated land and livestock manager at the TomKat Ranch Educational Foundation, took us through the science of pasturing rotation, moving the 100% grass-fed cows from place to place to give the grass time to renew. As startup PastureMap’s Ranch Community Lead Andrea Martinez explained, recording these movements on tablets and smartphones creates a treasure-trove of rich data that can improve yield and health, and replace old paper methods.
The burgers we had at lunch were sourced from TomKat; they are a vivid reminder that the Impossible Foods meatless burgers we had in S.F. just 48 hours earlier will just never catch up (my personal opinion). For the jaded tech exec, startup pitches in a farmhouse kitchen is a welcome change of pace, and concentrates one’s attention. The focus of Rex Animal Health on genetic Big Data analytics for animals seems both obvious and over-looked. Speaking of vision, the ability of Agridata’s machine learning experts to harness the power of computer vision to count individual grapes in a vineyard at scale is eye-opening to say the least.
The fil vert is spreading its roots deeply into the terroir of Silicon Valley. The conditions for this growth are massive convergences of economics, consumer behavior, increasingly powerful computation at the edge, IoT business models, and networks of all kinds. Most importantly, it is the meeting-ground between Science and Tech, where the Living meets Automation.