It was a privilege and an honor to be part of the organizing team and also to moderate the “East Meets West” conference held at the California Agriculture Center last month in Salinas, California. The first event of its kind brought together seven member-companies from the JPFA (Japan Plant Factory Association) led by association President and Professor Emeritus from Japan’s Chiba University, Dr. Toyoki Kozai. Known as the “Father of the Japanese Plant Factory,” or what westerners call indoor vertical farms (food production using only artificial lights) he was assisted by Eri Hayashi who assembled actual operators of plant factories and representatives from companies with expertise in lighting, engineering and construction, irrigation, and software.
With a full audience in attendance, California growers, academics and various Ag-related companies were strongly represented. The event began with a warm welcome from the current Salinas mayor, Joe Gunter, followed by Dennis Donohue, lead for the Western Growers Association’s Center for Innovation and Technology. Mayor Gunter presented Dr. Kozai with a bottle of local wine while Dennis, a former mayor of Salinas, noted the ties between Salinas and Japan were strong and long-standing. I was to learn the following day during the greenhouse tour that beginning in the 1920’s many of Salinas’ early greenhouses were constructed and operated by Japanese immigrants. In fact, a number of those early greenhouses remain in place today while the early operators and their descendants are long gone.
The Japanese company representatives competently presented entirely in English, something I found to be deeply courageous as well as a respectful gesture to the assembled audience. During the question and answer period following each presentation, company representatives were adroitly assisted by Naoko Honda, a local and highly professional translator/interpreter. The presenting companies included:
- KEYSTONE TECHNOLOGY
- SHINNIOOPU 808 FACTORY
- IKEUCHI USA
- NIHON ADVANCED AGRI
With four networking sessions interspersed throughout the day, like a teacher facing a rowdy class, it was difficult for this moderator to get the buzzing room back to into their seats for the next set of presentations. During the afternoon session, Victor Hernandez from the USDA was introduced and provided a brief overview of the department’s initiatives, programs and Ag resources in their 52 California offices. Chris Higgins, General Manager of Hort Americas and founder of Urban Ag News, spoke of the importance of these types of events with the goal of incorporating international networking along with a solid dose of science and education. To this end, those on hand included a strong contingent from the University of California, Davis, led by crop ecologist Dr. Heiner Lieth; representatives from Dutch R&D firm, PlantLab; and Dr. Nadia Sabeh, an expert on HVAC in controlled growing environments.
Day one finished with a lively presentation by Dr. Don Wilkerson of iBio CMO.* Not only is his work amazing (think Ebola vaccine) but his down-to-earth nature provokes thought through the use of his unique blend of humor with science.
*iBio CMO has broad capabilities in plant, cell culture and microbial-based expression systems. With these capabilities, iBio CMO maintains the full range of options for biological product development and manufacturing to respond to current unmet patient and global needs.
Included in my role as part of the organizing team and the event’s moderator, I was also the shuttle bus driver for the Japanese delegation. This job gave me the opportunity to get to know the delegation in a more intimate manner. An amazingly kind and inquisitive group, they were impressed by the vastness of the Salinas valley, the number of crops being grown year round, and all were incredibly eager to connect with US companies.
Day two concluded with a greenhouse tour from Rocket Farms’ horticulture expert, Victor Loaiza, who graciously led the delegation through several different sites around the Salinas valley. Impressive in terms of Rocket Farms’ scale of greenhouse growing operations (Trader Joe’s is a primary customer), the delegation saw first-hand how their technology could in fact help US growers in meeting their current challenges. Supplemental lighting, control systems based on software technology, irrigation systems and automation were all highlighted as a need by Victor.
Stay tuned for more events of this kind – Texas A&M and MIT are possible 2017 sites – and feel free to reach out me, Jim Pantaleo, for an introduction to any members of the JPFA delegation.
Thank you very much!