Santa Barbara County has virtually all the elements necessary to make agriculture the No. 1 economic driver it is, but dealing with such pressures as costly government regulations, expensive land values, a labor shortage, drought and, most recently, the pandemic will require increasing innovation, according to experts at an agricultural forum Thursday.

But developing innovative systems and techniques will require far more capital than is currently being invested, and those innovations will also require agricultural workers to be more highly trained to operate and maintain those systems, they said.

Those assessments came from Central Coast growers with generations of experience and leaders in developing agricultural machinery and helping start-up ag technology businesses get off the ground who spoke at the EconAlliance 2022 Ag Forum.

“Agriculture: The Future in Focus” was the theme of the four-hour event at the Radisson that featured keynote speaker Biong Xiong, state executive director of the USDA California Farm Service Agency.

Awards were also presented to outstanding human resources managers for local agricultural firms.

In opening remarks, EconAlliance Ag Initiative team leader George Adam said Santa Barbara County agriculture has been so successful because of chain of fortuitous links — weather, soil, water, infrastructure, management and advocacy.

“When you have lows in the 50s, highs in the 70s at the coast, 90s [and] 80s inland, then you can raise crops with the consistency … of nobody else in the world,” Adam said, adding growers have conserved high-quality soils to be productive for generations.

The construction of the Twitchell and Cachuma reservoirs and importation of state water have also provided a reliable water source, without which “agriculture would have been very different” here.

Infrastructure that includes countless miles of private roads and other facilities have supported the industry, although the housing element of that is lacking, and the knowledge to manage all those elements to produce numerous crops “was acquired over generations — generations of mistakes, sometimes,” Adam said.

“The last link is the advocacy of the community,” he said. “We need a whole community of advocates, because you know it doesn’t take many people to make it go another way.”

But based on comments from others who spoke, a new link is needed in that chain — agricultural technology that includes automation, robotics, artificial intelligence and self-guided machines to fill in for the shortage of labor and make up for the increasing costs growers face.

“The labor challenge is harvest-focused,” said Walt Duflock, vice president of innovation for the Western Growers Association. “The goal is to automate 50% of the fresh produce harvest in 10 years.”

He said it’s important that those developing new solutions use components that can be adapted for use on multiple crops.

Duflock expects to see growth in such innovative areas as biologicals, automated harvesting and weeding, artificial intelligence, controlled-environment agriculture, or CEA, and vertical farming, where crops are grown indoors in vertical layers.

Innovative tech sometimes means interrelated advancements. As an example, Duflock pointed to High Rise broccoli, which was bred to grow a tight head on a 10-inch stalk, making automated harvesting easier and more efficient.

All that new technology doesn’t mean there won’t be a need for workers, he said. They’ll just be needed in different, less demanding and sometimes higher paying positions.

In the case of High Rise broccoli, the harvest increased from 400 boxes an hour to 600 to 700 boxes per hour, and the workers got a 60% salary increase.

“One thing [that’s] clear is with all those robots in the field, someone will need to work on them, fix them and build the next generation,” Duflock said.

So the goal is to train 3,000 community college students in agricultural technology in the next five years, which will require the assistance of growers.

Duflock pointed out that investment in those types of agricultural technology is lagging, noting that $621 billion was invested in new startups in 2021, but of that only $15.8 billion was in “upstream” ag startups — those actually involved in crop production.