EconAlliance 5th Ag Forum Yields Valuable Insights

Over 125 agriculture and economic stakeholders gathered at the Radisson in Santa Maria on Thursday, February 3, for the 5th EconAlliance Ag Forum. Hosted by EconAlliance Ag Initiative Lead George Adam (Innovative Produce) and Board President Sam Cohen (Santa Ynez Chumash), the premier event sponsor was Grower-Shipper Association Santa Barbara & San Luis Obispo Counties, as well as Farm Credit West, Allan Hancock College, Community Bank of Santa Maria and Innovative Produce, as well as several table sponsors. Luncheon keynote was Blong Xiong, State USDA Farm Services Agency Executive Director and featured speaker was Walt Duflock, Vice President Innovation, Western Growers Association. His in-depth presentation (PDF in Doc Library here) was very well received. The event also included County of Santa Barbara Deputy Ag Commissioner Lottie Martin and Innovation and Competitiveness Issues panels.

Keynote by Blong Xiong, State USDA Farm Services Agency Executive Director

Highlights of the event included Blong Xiong’s sharing of new programs and initiatives at the state level targeting rural and ag communities, one of which was drought-related.


Duflock (photo right) noted, while sharing that 2021 was a record ($621B) year in venture capital investing, that the challenge for agriculture was to create more “unicorns” (newest, potentially most profitable start-ups). Of the 250 total “unicorns” funded in 2021, only one was ag-related.

Important EconAlliance Ag Forum

Current investment interest seems to be in the “downstream” areas of ag such as instore restaurant, online restaurants and MealKits, eGrocery, etc. although 2021 investment in Ag “upstream” areas still outstripped downstream investments in both largest deal ($1.6B vs $800M in downstream), and in overall investment ($15.8B vs $14.3B downstream).

Labor costs and shortages are driving much of the innovation and R&D, with Duflock stating, “AgTech goes where acreage is growing” and labor is needed. The Duflock presentation also noted that the costs of regulatory compliance, in addition to rising labor costs, are creating a burden on the producer. Lettuce grower costs in California, for example, rose 795% between 2006-2017, while production costs increased 25% over the same period. The share of regulatory costs of total production costs increased from 1% to 9% from 2006-2017, according to research done by Cal Poly professor Lynn Hamilton.

Deputy Ag Commissioner Lottle Martin stated that the top five 2020 crops in Santa Barbara County included strawberries (at number one), cauliflower, broccoli, nursery products and wine grapes, with the top five countries exported to being Canada, Japan, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait. Commercial hemp is a new crop for the County, with commercial hemp producers now able to register with the County (hemp acreage capped at 152 acres). As of February 2, 2022, there were 16 cannabis licenses countywide.


The Forum recognized several HR and/or Safety Officers nominated by local growers: Veronica Blanco (Innovative Produce), Veronica Dodd (Frest Venture Foods), Haydee Garcia (Main Street Produce) and Carrie Jordan and Maria Guadalupe (Lupita) Calderon of Babe Farms.


A 501c3 nonprofit organization, EconAlliance drives positive impact through strategic initiatives, unique partnerships and creative programs. The organization champions Northern Santa Barbara County communities and the key industry sectors that fuel these communities and inspire regional economic vitality.