City dwellers may not associate agriculture with innovation, but technology is changing the way crops are grown and cattle are tended just as much as the way urbanites hail taxis, order food or find partners courtesy of apps such as Uber, Seamless and Tinder.

“You can measure your production in real time from your iPhone now,” says Lauren Payne, a grain marketing specialist at Texas-headquartered Attebury Grain. “Technology has always been progressive in agriculture, but now, as with every industry, technology has grown exponentially.”

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And even though agtech is perhaps not as well known yet as biotech or IT, it is gaining momentum, as evidenced by the conferences organised by Rethink, a UK events company. In 2013 Rethink organised its first World Agri-tech Investment Summit in London, which 90 people attended. A year later, the attendance grew by 50%, says Jennie Moss, Rethink's managing director. “We were pleased, but not surprised as there is such a huge buzz around agtech currently,” she says.

Growing fast

Following growing demand for its agtech-related conferences, Rethink is now gearing up for the US version of the summit, to be held at the beginning of March in San Francisco. “The sector is growing so fast that there is definitely demand to host events in both Europe and the US. Our instincts have been proved right as we have had a sensational response to the San Francisco summit,” says Ms Moss. Large agri-companies such as Monsanto, Dow AgroSciences and John Deere have agreed to sponsor the conference.

Agtech’s growing clout is attracting the attention of local authorities in places such as Salinas, a Californian town of 155,000 people. Although located just an hour’s drive from Apple’s Cupertino campus, Salinas is not exactly a hive of technological activity. During his mid-December visit to New York, Salinas mayor Joe Gunter listed the town’s assets: the Steinbeck Center museum (“people come from all over the world to see his artefacts”), California Rodeo (“it is 105 years old”) and an annual air show (“the largest non-profit air show west of the Mississippi”). Not exactly a cocktail of attractions likely to have the investors flocking.

To give Salinas’ economy a much-needed boost, in 2012 city officials partnered with John Hartnett, a Silicon Valley-based technology executive and investor, to marry the region’s $8bn agriculture industry with technological know-how. In July 2014, SVG Partners, Mr Hartnett’s firm, launched the Thrive Accelerator, an entity offering start-ups up to $5m in funding and mentoring from fruit and vegetable producers such as Chiquita and Dole.

Additionally, the Kauffman Foundation, an entrepreneurship organisation, offers an eight-week training programme in the town and has so far trained 50 would-be entrepreneurs. “Silicon Valley has technologies; we have conditions for testing them. Together we can work faster,” says Bruce Taylor, founder and chief executive of Taylor Farms, a Salinas-based freshly cut fruit and vegetable producer. He adds that his company is currently looking to adopt a number of new tech-solutions, including drones.

Opening communications

“For a long time, Silicon Valley did not talk to a farm world. Now they are coming together,” says Mr Gunter. But why now? SVG Partners’ Mr Hartnett says: “Agriculture has not been sexy. For years I lived in Silicon Valley, but I was unaware of the critical mass and multibillion dollar industry that is here.

“But Silicon Valley will always follow a great opportunity. And one thing that has become clear recently is the scale and size of [the opportunity] in agtech. By 2050, the world population is going to grow to 9 billion and the middle class from 1.2 billion to 5 billion. The connection between health, food and technology is a recipe for success.” 

Salinas is not the only location that follows that recipe. One of the pioneers in the field is Israel, which by virtue of its geopolitics is forced to be creative about the ways it uses farmlands and water. The country hosts Agritech Israel, one of the biggest agtech conferences in the world, which in 2015 will have its 19th exhibition. It is also home to a number of big agtech players, such as Evogene, a New York Stock Exchange-traded crop R&D firm, and Hazera, a seed breeder with subsidiaries in 12 countries and a presence in more than 100 markets.

Accelerating agtech

Back in the US, St Louis boasts the Yield Lab, a newly opened agtech accelerator. In December 2014, Ottawa County in Michigan followed in St Louis’s steps by launching its Great Lakes Ag-Tech Business Incubator. Texas has similar ambitions, says Travis Miller, interim associate director at AgriLife Extension Service department of Texas A&M, the state's public university. “Texas A&M AgriLife Research has developed an office of corporate relations which aggressively seeks partnerships with private industry to match the needs of the industry with the research capacity,” he says.

Mr Miller adds that the office currently manages an estimated $70m of ongoing agri-research in fields such as bioenergy, crop germplasm development and livestock pharmaceuticals. Bob Avant, Mr Miller's colleague who heads the corporate relations office, says: “Because Texas has the second largest agriculture economy in the US, it is well suited for an agtech cluster involving specialty and commodity crops.”

The buzz around agtech is reminiscent of the green revolution of the 1960s. Yet, the green revolution, despite a lot of hype, brought mixed results and common knowledge of innovations in agriculture did not progress much past the controversial genetically modified food issue.

Will the current agtech drive turn out to be little more than hype, too? “Some of it is hype. [But] some of the bigger players are quietly doing their work and not seeking headlines,” says Mr Miller. And some, are being not so quiet. In November 2014, Eric Schmidt, Google's chairman, backed Farm 2050, an agtech start-up support entity. A year earlier, Khosla Ventures and Andreessen Horowitz, prominent venture capital firms, backed agtech-related businesses. If the hottest names in Silicon Valley are betting their money on agtech, it seems likely that the seeds are being sown for something that will have a truly global impact.