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Startups receive $2.25 million in funding at WG convention; Reade assumes chairmanship

Craig Reade of Bonipak Produce in Santa Maria, CA, was elected 2018 Western Growers Association chairman of the board at its 92nd annual meeting held Oct. 30-Nov. 1 in Las Vegas.

Outgoing Chairman Sammy Duda of Duda Farm Fresh Foods in Salinas, CA, passed the gavel to Reade and his slate of officers during the WGA board of directors meeting Oct. 31. That meeting focused on federal politics with an update on the effort to create an opportunity for foreign ag workers as well as information on healthcare, tax reform and trade.

Reviewing his year as chairman, Duda looked at the challenges the industry faced this past year but still expressed optimism toward the future. IMG 2623 previewChuck Templeton, Matthew Walker and Sanjeev Krishnan of S2G Ventures, Tom Nassif of Western Growers, Bruce Rasa of AgVoice, Aidan Mouat of Hazel Technologies Inc., Edwin Camp of D.M. Camp & Sons, Rob Yraceburu of Wonderful Orchards LLC and Ryan Talley of Talley Farms.

“California by far is the most regulated state, but by far, the most profitable,” said Duda. “California and Arizona are talented in the crop space. We can’t forget the impact we’ve had in feeding the world.”

One of the highlights of the meeting was the surprising investment of $2.25 million in two start-up companies during a “shark tank” session by a venture capital firm.

WGA’s proprietary AgSharks competition had six firms pitching their technologies to a panel of investors and farmers for substantial on-the-spot capital funding in front of a live grower audience.

Hazel Technologies, a start-up company that develops products that extend the shelf life of fresh produce, and AgVoice, the world's first voice and data management startup that allows ag professionals the freedom to work hands-free while on-the-go, received the investment offers from S2G Ventures (Seed 2 Growth) during the Oct. 31 workshop.  S2G Ventures, a multi-stage food and agriculture venture fund, offered Hazel Technologies $2 million in equity investment, while offering AgVoice $250,000 in seed funding.

“Western Growers continually strives to provide innovative opportunities that allow start-up companies that are developing cutting-edge technologies the ability to scale,” said Tom Nassif, president and chief executive officer of WGA. “AgSharks is an unprecedented event demonstrating the full potential of Western Growers’ innovation efforts. AgSharks brought together growers, investors and agtech startups in a single forum to prioritize and fund technology that will help solve agriculture’s most pressing issues and move the industry forward.”

Sanjeev Krishnan, managing director of S2G Ventures, added, “By providing capital to the entrepreneurs at Hazel Technologies and AgVoice, S2G and Western Growers support innovation on the farm and in the supply chain to improve farmer productivity and profitability.”

In other meeting highlights, Kristen Soltis Anderson engaged the audience in a keynote addressed that focused on busting four myths about millennials, a generation that comprises 75 million individuals in the United States.

“We are not what you think we are,” said Soltis. “We are not trying to blow everything up and change all the old processes. We are actually a risk-adverse generation and doing things the old way is too risky for us.”

David Gill, who is involved in many California farming operations, including Rio Farms and Gill’s Onions, was the recipient of the prestigious 2017 WG Award of Honor. “My success is wrapped around good partnerships,” he said. “Good employees, good partners and a lot of trust.”

During his speech, Gill articulated a call to action that was emblematic of his own many years of service to the industry. “The challenges never stop coming to our industry. We need strong voices for our industry. Both young and old. They are so important to our future. If you want to make a difference, you need to get involved. Don’t sit back. I challenge everyone to volunteer.”

Politics are always front-and-center at the annual meeting, and this year was no exception. During the Political Action Committee fundraising event, Western Growers PAC Chairman Ron Ratto of Ratto Bros. in Modesto, CA, noted that the challenges facing the agricultural industry are as critical as ever, and urged the audience to redouble its efforts to unite behind a common political voice.

P.J. O’Rourke, the nation’s premier political satirist and the “funniest writer in America,” according to both TIME and The Wall Street Journal, entertained the audience with a humorous speech on all that ails the Washington establishment.

Healthcare, immigration and cannabis were the subject of the breakout sessions, each drawing a plethora of interesting speakers and very attentive conventioneers. In the healthcare session, a panel of state and federal healthcare experts discussed a variety of issues ranging from the state of play for the Affordable Care Act to the prospects of single payer healthcare.

Political insiders from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Cato Institute and AmericanHort touched on the prospects of immigration reform, and the strategy for moving an agricultural solution forward.

With the legal non-medical use of cannabis in California set to begin in 2018, Lori Ajax of the California Bureau of Cannabis Control, along with producers and advocates, examined the emerging state regulatory and marketplace structures for cannabis, and opportunities that may exist for commercial ag.