Exploring the impact and future of Indoor Ag-Con Las Vegas

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By guest author Rick Passo

I have been with this Conference from the very start: learning, collaborating, networking and doing my utmost to create global recognition for how Las Vegas can lead the world in food policy, food innovation, food technology and food justice. I am interested especially in food and horticultural therapy for special needs populations including the severely mentally ill and those with traumatic brain disorders, which is my main interest in the controlled environment agriculture sector.

Having experienced every Indoor Ag-Con Conference here in Las Vegas, my perspective is molded by following the progression and growth and diversification of this emergent sector for seven years.

There were multiple, specialized tracks of speakers including GROW EQUIPMENT TRACK, CROP SELECTION TRACK, CUSTOMERS & THE SUPPLY CHAIN, BUSINESS TRACK, and POLICY & SOCIETAL IMPACT. There also were dozens of vendors who represented a wide range of products and controlled environment agriculture vendors and related suppliers, as well as multiple opportunities for networking, learning and exploring.

A great way to introduce my experiences at Indoor Ag-Con Las Vegas 7 is to highlight important themes highlighted by industry leaders Brad McNamara of Freight Farms, Irving Fain of Bowery, and Viraj PuriI of Gotham Greens.

In his keynote, Brad McNamara, CEO and co-founder of Freight Farms, emphasized how the oldest GenZer is 22 years old, is trading wealth for health, is interested in doing good while eating well and is focused on improving sustainability and in promoting local and transparent food systems: which he emphasized is a fundamental shift in the food business. He also detailed an evolving new generation of urban farmers who are motivated, trained and focused to meet these new food standards – requiring a transition in university agriculture programs and training.

He also discussed a growing global network of farms, collaborating and learning from each other regarding subjects like best practices, marketing, what to grow, seed material, light, food safety and nutrients. Additionally, they discuss farmer failures and farm dynamics (such as optimizing air flow problems and optimizing shelf space).

After his keynote, Brad and I discussed how his network rescues and repurposes obsolete growing containers as well as STEM training for the local cooperative extension and local K through 12 school system. These subjects will be discussed in more detail in a separate article.

Irving Fain of Bowery’s keynote focused on innovation profiles and related case studies which he described as being relevant to the future of urban controlled environment agriculture, both in terms of marketing and of science, emphasizing how this emergent sector is just in its infancy and how it can benefit from learning how other global businesses spawned from their innovations. For example, he described how NetFlix evolved from a basic delivery service to a content provider and a value chain itself, propelled in growing by rapidly improving infrastructure and technology. He also highlighted how Uber had only 3 cars when it launched but he described how, through continuous innovation and network expansion, Uber had transformed from a simple concierge limousine service into a comprehensive global transportation and delivery service. Additionally, he discussed the evolution of Amazon via continuous consumer benefits, loyalty via Amazon Prime and via increasingly sophisticated fulfillment centers – and how they cumulatively have led to Amazon’s ascension deeper into the value chain of global customer needs.

Irving Fain in particular emphasized how national grocers demand more local produce than ever before and that a large portion of grocery purchases in the future will be grown indoors.

Unfortunately, due to an unavoidable conflict, I missed the keynote of Viraj Puri of Gotham Greens but I have been privileged to hear him speak previously, including at last year’s Indoor Ag-Con Las Vegas. He is a true industry rockstar and I am especially impressed by his outreach to the broader community and by the generosity of his time and expertise to wonderful institutions such as Stephen Ritz’ Green Bronx Machine. Click here for inspiring information on this innovative corporate-academic partnership.

Gotham Greens has built and operates over 170,000 square feet of technologically advanced, urban rooftop greenhouses across 4 facilities in New York City and Chicago.

Below are some other presentations and topics that caught my attention and which I will be exploring and expanding upon in the future. There were so many tracks and so many speakers and so many vendors that I could only scratch the surface of everything that was offered at this Conference. Equally important, and perhaps most important, was the willingness and eagerness of the new Conference owners to receive constructive feedback and suggestions for how to grow this important conference in the future. The worlds of food science, food policy, food marketing, food education, food technology, food logistics, food justice are constantly evolving and growing in new and exciting ways. So too has and will the Indoor Ag-Con Conference – both here in Las Vegas and globally.

BLOCKCHAIN AND LEDGER TECHNOLOGY FOR THE FOOD SUPPLY CHAIN

Speaker: Raja Ramachandran, CEO and Co-Founder, ripe.io

Raja Ramachandran discussed regulatory compliance, traceability, food safety via usage of blockchain and ledger technology for more sustainable and healthier food business – resulting in increased efficiency, trust and social impact via digital records. He discussed how complex supply chains for a manufacturer or consumer products company can integrate internal and external supply chains on one digital ledger. And how dual supply and buyer managements can be networked. He presented how ripe.io creates digital Food Bundles to map the food journey that engenders transparency, trust, and honesty for food producers, distributors, and consumers.

After his presentation, Raja and I discussed how his blockchain and ledger technology might work in the entrepreneurial ecosystem being created here in Las Vegas on behalf of the United States Air Force. I hope to explore this topic in the future.

CO-CREATING THE FUTURE OF INDOOR AG; LESSONS FROM SINGAPORE, TAIWAN & JAPAN

Speaker: Jacob Eisenberg, product manager, OnePointOne Farms

Jake Eisenberg is Product Manager at OnePointOne Farms Santa Clara, California. Prior to joining, Jake spent extended time in Japan, Singapore, and Taiwan as a freelance researcher examining the industry and market development among Asian Plant Factories and indoor growing facilities.

Jacob Eisenberg discussed his creation of a toolkit which validates commercial ideas and production models, and lowering barriers of entry for new farms and technology via:

  • Pilot Matchmakers,
  • Collective Researchers,
  • R&D Partners
  • Tech Matchmakers
  • Hubs
  • Local for local Advocates which spread the ideal of competitive cooperation

Jacob writes regularly on this topic at https://medium.com/agri-futures

After his session I discussed with Jacob about important agricultural hubs and connections in the Philippines such as https://agrea.publishpath.com and http://www.gk1world.com/home which are global forces for economic change and nation building via Agriculture. They were related resources for a number of other speakers especially in exploring the future societal impact of indoor agriculture globally

UNLOCKING AGRICULTURE INNOVATION THROUGH UNCOMMON COLLABORATION WITH UC ANR

Speaker: Gabriel Youtsey, Chief Innovation Officer, UC Agriculture & Natural Resources

Gabriel (Gabe) Youtsey serves as the Chief Innovation Officer for UC Agriculture and Natural Resources (UC ANR). He is leading the California VINE initiative, which) brings the power of science to deliver practical solutions in California by addressing major challenges such as fire, water shortages, safe food, urban pests, college readiness and poor nutrition. (“VINE will connect existing clusters of innovation across California and link entrepreneurs with mentors, advisors, collaborators, events, competitions, education and other services to turn good ideas into products and services people can use.”)

Professor Youtsey highlighted on unsustainable current agricultural practices in California area in terms of issues related to workforce, cost compliance, water, land economics, climate change and biodiversity, food safety, consumer preferences and international trade. He emphasized how ag tech is advancing globally in areas like robotic harvesting, robotic weeding, drones, LED lighting, better genetics and evolving business models. He emphasized the need for uncommon collaboration, globally.

I was very impressed by the breath and extent and diversity of the entities which are being coordinated and collaborated by UC ANR but I see the potential for much broader policy discussions especially with entities such as the Resnick School for Food Law & Policy, with the Los Angeles Food Policy Council, and global best practices such as the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact.

THE SOCIETAL IMPACT OF INDOOR VERTICAL FARMING

Speaker: Brian Lanes, Industry Consultant

Building on the societal and policy themes on the increasing importance of this sector was the presentation by industry consultant Brian Lanes. His extensive resume is aptly summarized here. Here are some highlights:

“Brian Lanes is an opportunity scout and catalyst with 40+ years of consulting and business development experience. Brian works with early movers, innovative thinkers, and intrepid leaders who seek to devote their resources to tackling some of the core problems facing us today.
Brian co-founded Wintergreen Partners in 1991, developing strategic alliances and a global network of people and their companies to best serve common areas of interest. The primary areas of focus of Wintergreen include food-energy-water; health care-med/tech and areas where social capital influence global change.”

Brian Lanes’ presentation focused on the impact of vertical farming in the Third World, specifically in war-torn Monrovia, Liberia from a “design-thinking” point of view in “repositioning” energy policy and thinking, and building upon his long time experience with the Stanford Plant Lab studies, https://dschool.stanford.edu/classes/feed-lab-food-system-design-innovation

He emphasized that especially in Liberia the key factor was the role of women in culture in response to challenges such as an inconsistent and highly intermittent energy grid, urbanization and job training needs. He also related successes such as scaling his programs to 70 cities across the Sub Saharan Africa. At its core, Brian Lanes stressed that his mission and vision globally is that a Healthy Community is a Human Right, globally.

Personally as a Returned U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer, I was encouraged and delighted that Brian Lane stated that an influential advisor for this and Wintergreen Partners’ global team also is a former U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer, And after his session, Mr. Lane and I discussed a variety of international collaborators for his important work including some of my links in the Philippines which I already have highlighted like Agrea and Gawad Kalinga. I also mentioned the National Peace Corps Association https://www.peacecorpsconnect.org/cpages/home which connects the approximate 230,000 Returned Peace Corps Volunteers.

I was very excited to meet with Brian Lane and to learn about how he and his team of visionaries are making the future of food globally one of increasing food justice. And to explore further how I might make some rippling impacts on his collective efforts.

Conclusion

In this overview, I can only give a glimpse of what I experienced and learned and networked and seeded at Indoor Ag-Con Las Vegas 7. And I left out a number of equally compelling and important and impactful encounters and topics and threads that I intend to explore in much greater detail in the near future.

Overall, it was a very rewarding and inspiring and enlightening gathering and it truly proved to be a bridge for a slew of opportunities and collaborations in the future that will impact our World’s Food Future in empowering and important ways, especially in terms of sustainability and food justice.


About the author: Rick Passo is a social activist passionate about moving Las Vegas to the front of the of the global food movement while at the same time fighting for the creation of food hubs, incubators, urban agriculture, ecoTherapy, community gardens, food insecurity and food justice via empowering, training & employing vulnerable populations, especially those with mental and physical disabilities.

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