New agricultural innovations would impact Valley

Over the holidays, I popped in my favorite movies in my home office. One favorite is “The Natural,” a great movie for capturing mysticism of our national pastime. One of the best lines is when Wilfred Brimley’s character Pop Fisher tells his assistant manager, “I should have been a farmer.”

That reverence to one of the most noble professions is based on our need to feel connected to nature, and the food we consume. What is also amazing is I see the future of agriculture in America with a positive outlook. And for northeast Ohio, another opportunity exists to be a catalyst in agriculture’s future, known as ‘AgTech’.

The Australian government defines AgTech as “any innovation used across the value chain to improve efficiency, profitability and / or sustainability (of farms). It includes hardware and software, business models, new technologies and new applications.” A lot of AgTech application is coming from other areas.

For example, companies are drawing from auto industry tech to work on autonomous tractors to help farmers experiencing the same shortage in labor as other industries. And high-end sensor technology is being coupled to drones so farmers can deploy fertilizers only on targeted areas of their land with a greater deficiency in that fertilizer than others. Not only does it save farmers money, but it can potentially reduce runoff into water systems triggering those invasive algae blooms.

But what I like about AgTech is it may actually give small farms a better chance to stay profitable and compete with large farms. According to the University of Arkansas, Ohio has nearly 78,000 farms; average size is 175 acres. It’s essential these farms have every opportunity to compete with other states.

This is where I think government agencies in northeast Ohio can step to the plate and swing for the fences. Youngstown was the first in the region to create an innovation ecosystem with the world-class Youngstown Business Incubator. Then-U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan pushed to replicate that success with what is now the BRITE Energy Innovators in Trumbull County. So now it is time for the same successful model to be implemented for AgTech innovation in Columbiana County with a dedicated AgTech Incubator to assist regional farms in staying competitive this century.

The good news is that ingredients are in place to make this happen. First, Kent State University already has an active Agribusiness curriculum at its campuses. Its organic knowledge can be a foundation.

Next, Mahoning and Columbiana counties are represented by U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson, who I’ve personally seen appreciate the role for innovation in historical industries.

Third, Ohio is increasing its reputation for creating venture capital opportunities for rising new tech companies statewide. So, the VC ecosystem is nearby.

This is where I see a Columbiana AgTech incubator to be key: it would be a conduit for farms to express its needs to technologists and capital, and for that capital to be deployed faster to the fields and farms of northeast Ohio and beyond. Even though I love New York City, I question why it’s a top 10 city for AgTech venture capital, along with San Francisco, LA, etc. If AgTech will be successful, the VC backing it needs to be in the Omahas, Kansas Cities and Columbuses of the nation.

Last, as a native Youngstowner who grew up overlooking rows of steel mills, I see another opportunity to repopulate that land for tomorrow’s economy. Indoor and Vertical Agriculture also is growing in proliferation in major urban centers of the U.S. I am fearful the 20-year drought in California will make the U.S. more reliant on imports of key ag products in the future. Vertical Ag in a controlled climate setting could be a solution .

The former brownfield lands of the Valley would be ideal locations. And the best part is these farms would not compete with existing Ohio farms, as they would bring other products not necessarily grown in the region, or it would grow products in the winter in Ohio.

Many of my friends argue “Field of Dreams” is the baseball movie that really captures the mysticism of baseball. They might be right. After all, that movie’s famous line is “Build it and they will come.”

That line can be true for a Columbiana County AgTech incubator — build it and further innovation and technology will come to Ohio farms.

Eric Planey, a Youngstown native, is CEO of SolaBlock, a Massachusetts-based solar technology company, and is co-host of the

of the Pirates of Cleantech podcast.


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