Transforming time and generations

From Farms to Incubators, profiling minority women entrepreneurs in ag tech in the Salinas Valley and beyond. This series, published in The Salinas Californian, is sponsored by a grant from the International Center for Journalists. 

“I must study politics and war, that my sons may have the liberty to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, and naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain.”

– John Adams, second U.S. president

First of a three-part series,

SALINAS — Rush hour during harvest season in Salinas can start as early as 3:30 a.m. Picked produce is most fresh before at an early hour. As the rest of the area sleeps under the crisp cool of this city on the Central Coast, vehicles — many of them pick up trucks and buses — stream along local roads, their headlights piercing the pitch blackness. The field managers and farm laborers are heading to their shifts.

The vehicles lead to the roughly 369,187 acres of farmland in Monterey County – and within that some 47,000 acres in the Salinas Valley – that frame and fill the city. Salinas, with its population of 161,000, is the largest of the five cities that make up the Salinas Valley and the largest in the county.

Even in these rapidly changing times, field laborers remain a critical part of the landscape: servicing rows of crop fields meticulously orchestrated to grow a range of produce from broccoli, grapes to the industry staple, lettuce. The fertile valley carries the nickname “Salad Bowl of the World.”

Against the picturesque backdrop of fresh air, sunshine and the lush rolling mountains beautifully depicted in novelist John Steinbeck’s books is the reality of backbreaking labor: 10-hour shifts broken up by two 15-minute breaks, a 30-minute lunch at an average wage of $12.50 an hour. The work can start as early as 2 a.m.

Many of the workers in the fields, packing houses and refrigeration warehouses are middle-aged women, and many of them Mexican immigrants. This is the life they have known for much of their lives.

The image of the field worker is embedded in the DNA of the Salinas Valley and, in particular, Salinas. Locals matter-of-factly refer to the divide between Salinas and neighboring municipalities as the “Lettuce Curtain.” Even public art reflects agriculture’s significance; the artist John Cerney’s larger-than-life sized cutouts of farm workers. Artist Claes Oldenburg’s sculpture “Hat in Three Stages of Landing” is a series of straw hats that epitomizes the significant contribution of farm laborers.

Agriculture is not only the main business in this region: It’s big business, a $9 billion industry and the economic engine of Salinas Valley. In the county, crop production was worth more than $4.8 billion in 2015, a fourth year of record sales.

Here in Salinas Valley, the word “farm” as a reference to a small mom-and-pop business doesn’t exist. The Valley revolves around agriculture on a large scale: Agricultural behemoths such as Bengard, D’Arrigo Brothers and Church Brothers lease the land from families that have owned it for generations.

“There aren’t little farms anymore that grow the crops and sell it. There are major companies that do the processing and selling,” said attorney Brian Finegan, noting that smaller growers now work under contract.

But generations are shifting, too, as younger landowners look to diversifying their investments in the stock market or other sectors. Agriculture, unlike industries such as technology or retail, can be steady but vulnerable — the fate of the product and its returns are in large part under the control of the environment and Mother Nature.

Salinas agriculture, in many respects, is also one of the toughest to penetrate, especially for newcomers or outsiders, according to dozens of interviews with industry players.

The cost of the land – which in recent years has skyrocketed — is a roadblock to entry.

“You never will see a for sale sign,” said Finegan, noting that when a family wants to sell, they send bids to specific potential buyers. And more often than not, news of available land comes through word of mouth and networks rather than through a transparent, public process.

Generations and generations
And then there is the tight-knit culture that has developed. Agriculture behemoths such as Taylor Farms, Tanimura & Antle (T&A), Ocean Mist and Church Brothers come with lengthy and rich histories, stories of families who have worked hard to turn the land into their livelihood and that passed it to later generations, traditionally to their sons and grandsons.

“A lot of ground has been passed down from generation to generation, and women aren’t really afforded that opportunity,” said Margaret D’Arrigo-Martin, a family member of the D’Arrigo Brothers, a prominent and long-standing agriculture family in the Salinas Valley. The company was founded by brothers Andrea and Stefano D’Arrigo in 1923.

D’Arrigo-Martin is the youngest of six children, three boys and three girls, and she said growing up all worked in the family business.

Though she knew she wanted to stay in the family business, “I was always OK with being number two,” she said, adding her sisters didn’t share her interest.

The industry has been hard to crack even for men, and especially for outsiders without direct connections in the Valley.

Salinas Councilmember Steve McShane, owner of McShane’s Nursery, is a San Jose transplant who came to Salinas with dreams of getting into agriculture after graduating from Cal Poly with a major in soil science. It was challenging to break into the industry but networking helped.

“I came to find out pretty quickly that Salinas is a very small town and a very tight-knit town. By many measures, I had to work harder and smarter than anyone in business and social circles to be accepted,” he said.

McShane got involved in a number of local organizations, including Rotary, and founded the Central Coast Young Farmers & Ranchers. He was cut a break when he married the daughter of Salinas contractor Don Chapin (they are no longer married).

“We (Chapin) knew each other through circles in the community and one conversation led to another and we were able to buy the business,” he said of the nursery. McShane said the agriculture industry here remains family-centric and tight-knit. “It’s tradition and it is conservative and there’s a whole culture to it. Go to a Grower-Shipper meeting and a farm bureau meeting, it’s still Coors Light and plaid shirts.”

The industry also remains heavily male-dominated, especially at senior management levels. According to the 2012 Census of Agriculture, there were 969,672 female farmers. Nationally, 30% of farmers were women but farms with women as chief operators fell 6% between 2007 and 2012. The large agriculture companies – whether packing houses or fresh produce companies – are run by men. Industry organizations including the Grower-Shipper Association of Central California, Western Growers and the Monterey County Farm Bureau are predominantly led by men, mostly white and middle-aged.

But slowly there are signs of a paradigm shift.

A growing number of women are working in white-collar positions at agriculture companies led by Taylor Farms, Driscoll’s Berries and T&A. For almost 10 years, a group of professional women in Salinas Valley, including D’Arrigo Martin, have been running the IMPOWER Luncheon, designed to inspire, cultivate and motivate women personally and professionally. At IMPOWER events, companies such as Taylor and T&A sponsor tables packed with their female staffers.

A handful of ag companies are run by women, most prominent being Mann Packing, a major fresh vegetable producer led by chairman and CEO Lorri Koster and her sister, Gina Nucci.

Daughters of company patriarchs are also increasingly playing prominent roles in the family businesses.  It helps to come from the agriculture lineage, they say.

D’Arrigo Martin, now vice president of community development at Taylor Farms, said, “If I hadn’t been in a family-owned business” it would have been much more challenging to break in.

Teresa Matsui, president of Matsui Nursery, one of the largest orchid growers in the country, grew up in the business. Her father, Andy Matsui, started the nursery in 1967 after coming from Japan and in 2015 passed the running of the business to her. Today, the company has a full-time staff of more than 200 in Salinas, and is prominent when it comes to community philanthropy, especially education. The Matsui Foundation has given more than $5 million to underserved students in Monterey County and helped fuel programs such as CSin3, where Hartnell and CSU Monterey Bay students can earn a college degree in computer science in three years.

A shift to agtech

In Salinas, the emergence of women in agtech stems from an opportunity born out of crisis.

In 2012, the city was still climbing its way out of the Great Recession and a collapsed housing market. City workers were on furlough, and companies such as Nestlé Chocolate and McCormick & Co. closed their local operations. In 2013, Capital One – the national bank – was closing its headquarters in Salinas and laying off the local workforce. But before leaving, the bank gave the city $1.6 million to build its workforce.

At the same time, the agriculture industry statewide was facing growing challenges.

In 2014, Gov. Jerry Brown issued a state of emergency because of the drought. Here in the Valley, the mountains, once emerald green, were a crackly brown, and water was becoming nearly as precious than gold. Local government and industries scrambled to find ways to use water efficiently and conserve it, including technology to recycle groundwater runoff.

In addition, the industry was hit with a labor shortage, a decline of much-needed workers in the fields and in the packing houses. An older generation of workers — many immigrants or illegal from Mexico — were retiring and their offspring wanted to do anything but agriculture.

Salinas City Manager Ray Corpuz Jr., who joined the city at the tail end of 2012 and who helped create an economic strategy for Salinas, said ag tech was always part of the blueprint even before Capital One left. Corpuz has a track record of turning around cities: As city manager of Tacoma, Wash., he is often credited with transforming what some called the stepchild of Seattle into a city with a stable economy and booming real estate.

Corpuz, in tandem with then Mayor Dennis Donohue and key city staff, decided to pump the $1.6 million from Capital One and other resources into ag tech, a niche but emerging marriage of agriculture and technology.

Agriculture was already a success, and Corpuz said the city’s location — Salinas is about an hour’s drive from Silicon Valley — meant the area was fast becoming a bedroom community for people fleeing the overheated housing market of the Bay Area.

In the long run, they were betting they could transform the economy into one more knowledge based, and create more high-paying jobs. Reflecting upon the demographics of Salinas — a youthful median age of 28 and roughly 75% Latino-Hispanic — Corpuz saw a chance to develop a local workforce or one that Silicon Valley might outsource to.

The city’s ag tech strategy included:

  • Retaining John Hartnett, the CEO and founder of SVG Partners, a tech consulting company in Silicon Valley, to help develop the industry. Hartnett launched the THRIVE Accelerator, a competitive program where winning agtech startups receive mentorship, resources and a space in the Western Growers’ incubator.
  • Launching the Western Growers Center for Innovation & Technology in December 2015, which has increased the number of ag tech startups from 6 to 27.
  • Sponsoring and staging the Forbes AgTech Summit, an invitation-only event for industry movers and shakers.
  • Launching a partnership with the four other cities in Salinas Valley and Hartnell College to develop the ag tech and healthcare workforces.
  • Launching the Agricultural Business & Technology Institute at Hartnell College, which devotes its Alisal campus to degrees, certificates and classes in agriculture and increasingly ag tech.

These moves also capitalized on a generational and cultural shift in the area. The children of the immigrant laborers had grown up witnessing the hardship and hard work of their parents and their urging to do better. Those children were often the first to graduate from college. But after graduating, many left Salinas to build their lives elsewhere, attracted to bigger cities with more job opportunities and higher paying jobs like the Bay Area, Seattle or as far as Chicago.

“Most young people leave the area after they graduate,” said Albert Fong, a lifelong Salinian whose four children have all moved to the Bay Area for professional opportunities.

Companies such as Taylor Farms said it was increasingly hard to fill openings, especially with coveted younger workers, even as they were seeking ways to automate many of their operations.

Salinas was betting they could provide a new workforce with limitless potential and assure the area’s future.

Contact Government Reporter Amy Wu at 831-754-4285 or awu@thecalifornian.com. Follow Wu on Twitter @wu_salnews orwww.facebook.com/amywucalifornian.

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