The Western Growers Association is partnering for a second year with agtech consulting company Wharf42 to host the 2024 Salinas Biologicals Summit this week. The inaugural conference took place last summer, following the Newsom administration’s roll out of the Sustainable Pest Management Roadmap in early 2023. 

This year’s conference is focused on the economics of implementing and supporting biologicals for growers as the industry looks toward full implementation by 2050.

WGA President and CEO Dave Puglia opened the summit and explained the increasing pressure growers face from from buyers, major retailers, and state and local government to adopt sustainable pest management practices.

He also noted a “dramatic reduction in capital coming into agtech.”

“That is a troubling development when we are looking for more capital to come in and speed the development of biologicals, because of those pressure points that are hitting us extremely.” Puglia said. “So pressure's on.”

He outlined three steps to successfully implement biologicals, starting with helping investors make decisions when looking into potential biological startups and then helping to work out three phases of field trials. 

“Those first two stages we conduct with [UC Agriculture and Natural Resources] and extension resources. And the third phase is: Does it work for the growers’ economics? That's where we engage our members in commercial-scale field jobs, and we put a very high premium on those.”

Puglia said the final step is to deliver growers with case studies that include economic analysis of biological implementation based on a large-scale trial.

CDFA Secretary Karen Ross addressed a major CDFA effort to eradicate a wave of Oriental fruit flies in San Bernardino County over the last year. She attributed the project’s success to partnerships between local and state agencies, and noted the importance of language access, trusted messengers and community engagement.

“In many neighborhoods we’re knocking on the door, and saying, ‘Can I put a trap in your tree? I'm from the government, I'm here to help’ is not necessarily an invitation,” Ross said. “It underscores a very diverse society, and especially a society that has so many immigrants and first-generation families who are fearful of the government.”

She concluded by expressing the need to incorporate education and academia’s role further in agriculture and regulation.

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“This is a tremendous time for us to engage the deans of ag and environment and engineering—and may I say, the social sciences—to come together to think deeply about the science, the research, the education and the technology we need for the next decade and for the three decades that come after that,” Ross said. “Can we pull that all together with our companies, with venture capital to show them that we have a plan? Money will come back into the state budget.”

Pam Marrone, founder and chair of the Invasive Species Corp., discussed early adoption of biologicals and the current landscape for biological businesses. Her presentation explored growers’ evolving understanding of biologicals in the past year.

In February the Association of American Plant Food Control Officials implemented rules to establish definitions for beneficial substances, plant biostimulants and labeling standards. According to Marrone, California is currently the only state signed onto the standards. 

Tuesday’s sessions also included a moderated discussion between CDFA Undersecretary Christine Birdsong and California Department of Pesticide Regulation Director Julie Henderson on California’s regulatory action on sustainable pest management. 

In response to questions over the approval process for pesticides, Henderson said the biggest aid to state timelines will be the California Pesticide Electronic Submission Tracking (CalPEST) system, which she expects to go live this fall and expedite the review process.

Dennis Donohue, executive director of Western Growers Center for Innovation & Technology, outlined the goal of the summit: to bring together growers, regulators and investors on the biologicals conversation.

“Karen Ross has been a terrific partner with Western Growers on a number of our key initiatives, and we're really pleased that Julie Henderson has been very supportive of this effort,” Donohue said. “Obviously for Western Growers California and Arizona, it's particularly important [to know] what DPR and CDFA are thinking about.”

Donohue said that WGA is looking to switch locations for future summits to make them more accessible to a greater number of stakeholders. They’re looking at hosting the 2025 summit near Davis.

“This summit is part of an overall game plan around biologicals because at the end of the day, if you're involved in production agriculture, if you don't have a healthy, economically viable crop over time, you got a problem,” said Donohue.

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