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Research, policy are key in supporting ag, Chamber panelists say

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From page A10 | October 02, 2013 |

There’s nothing new about how robust Yolo County’s agricultural economy is, yet there’s a certain buzz surrounding this “green Silicon Valley.”

Speaking to Davis Chamber of Commerce members Tuesday about the future of regional agriculture were David Shabazian, senior planner for the Sacramento Area Council of Governments; Pam Marrone, founder and CEO of Marrone Bio Innovations; and Shane Tucker, a Davis walnut and almond grower.

Josette Lewis, associate director of the World Food Center at UC Davis, guided the panel in answering the question of how the region can accommodate interest in growing the burgeoning bio-technology sector, and simultaneously protecting the farmland it seeks to serve.

The monthly luncheon at the Odd Fellows Hall began with a video of Marrone’s visit this summer to NASDAQ MarketSite in New York City, where she stood with the company’s executives as confetti fell and the NASDAQ bell rang. The occasion was the launch of the bio-based pesticide and herbicide provider’s initial public offering, and transitioned well into one of Marrone’s talking points: what it will take for Davis to nurture more companies like MBI.

“What are we missing right now?” Marrone asked. “Well, we don’t have a wet laboratory incubator, or a research park. If it weren’t for Bayer CropScience moving to West Sacramento, (MBI) would’ve been pretty stuck on what facility to expand to.”

But she said there’s unmatched potential in the area with access to resources like UCD, which this year was recognized as the world’s top-ranking agricultural research university.

And she spoke about why it’s important that region responds to the need for growth in the ag-tech sector: feeding the world’s growing population, which is expected to increase from almost 7 billion to more than 9 billion by 2050, depends on it.

“For those who are willing to meet that challenge, and for those who want to do it more sustainably than we have in the past,” Marrone said, “there’s a huge opportunity in this region.”

Furthering the discussion was Shabazian, who filled in on the panel for Glenda Humiston, director of California Rural Development for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, who was furloughed Tuesday by the federal government’s shutdown.

Facilitating growth in the region’s agricultural industry also requires protecting land for farmers, who companies like Marrone’s seek to serve. Shabazian focused on how to balance economic growth with farmland preservation in the region.

“The big question has been: How do we look at the region through a rural lens?” he said. “It takes the varied interests in the county working outside of a vacuum, coming together to reduce some of the urban footprint.”

He celebrated efforts to address this via Yolo County’s long-standing commitment to agriculture. But he argued that policies, largely from the state, have driven out crop processing in the region.

“Yolo County had three or four tomato processing plants,” Shabazian said, “and we’re down to one. Now, that one is doing OK, but it’s threatened by regulation. They’re being subject to the cap-and-trade market, which is expensive for them.”

Shabazian is looking for Yolo County, and the greater Sacramento region, to start ratcheting up efforts to improve the business climate for small-scale ag processing companies.

Tucker, another of Tuesday’s panelists, provided insight into the global economic drivers in the agriculture industry. The local grower advises investors in the agricultural real estate sector, thus his expertise on the business end.

He explained that the growing population and demand for farming — especially with its diverse use, like in bio-fuel production — is rising faster than the industry can supply it. This has meant investments into agriculture have been lucrative.

The potential is such that there are more jobs in agriculture than there are applicants to fill them, and Tucker believes this is an area in which UCD’s ongoing research can assist.

“A tremendous amount of technology can help that problem,” he said. “There’s some really exciting work with robotics going on at UCD. They are working on programming a robotic arm that can pick ripe grapes.”

Between that and the emergence of bio-tech companies like MBI, Tucker stated his optimism about the present state of the region’s agriculture. As did Shabazian, who felt even the Chamber talk itself was a testament to success:

“Five years ago, we wouldn’t have been sitting around here talking about agriculture. We’d probably be talking about to attract some high-technology companies from the Bay Area.”

— Reach Brett Johnson at bjohnson@davisenterprise.net or 530-747-8052. Follow him on Twitter at @ReporterBrett

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