Discovering Yuma — America’s Winter Salad Bowl
As I stepped off the plane in Yuma’s tiny “international” airport, I could already feel the perspiration starting to form on the bridge of my nose and begging to drip down my face. I felt like the subject of a Dalí painting. My first impression of Yuma, Arizona? God it’s hot here.
Hot. Or as one local phrased it, “hot, stupid, and poor” is the unfortunate impression many people have of Yuma (if they‘ve even heard of it). Located in the southwest corner of Arizona on the border of Mexico and California, this small 200,000 resident border town often makes headlines for its 25.8% rate of unemployment — the highest in the nation. Here, only a quarter of the population have completed high school with a scant 10.3% going on to complete a bachelor’s degree. It’s not surprising then, to learn that slightly over 20% of the residents in the community live below the federal poverty line compared to the 14.5% national rate. When looking at Yuma by the numbers, one might wonder why it’s even worth getting on the plane in the first place.
The numbers didn’t scare me though. Quite the opposite, they intrigued me. In my efforts to find a community that could be the “proving ground” for my concentrated, private equity based approach to economic development in small, distressed communities across America, I wanted to understand how those numbers could exist in a community that also boasts the Guinness World Record for the “Sunniest Place On Earth.” Actually, dig a little deeper and you’ll find that Yuma holds several incredible titles. For instance, this little community has earned some the most senior water rights to the Colorado River Basin. What does that mean? A great deal if you’re also the producer of 90% of the nation’s winter leafy greens. So, when you’re crunching on a salad this winter, you can thank the $3.3BN agricultural industry in Yuma.
However, it’s this same, rich agricultural background and thriving industry that has contributed to the unemployment trends in Yuma. Lettuce is a high value crop, but it’s also labor intensive and must be manually harvested. While this employs much of the underserved population in Yuma, and even across the border in Mexico during the harvest season, it has created a pool of low-skill laborers rather than an educated workforce that would be enticing to the outside, non-seasonal businesses Yuma would like to attract. Aggravating the situation now is the fact that fewer and fewer workers are eager to join the previous generations out in the fields. For the first time, the local ag industry is facing a major threat to its labor force and the solution to that problem could be the very same thing that can lift Yuma out of its economic quagmire.
Yuma’s impending agricultural labor shortage is but a small facet of the larger problems facing the entire agricultural industry across the globe. The fact is, by 2050 we will need to produce at least 50% more food to feed 9 billion people. And to top it off, as our natural resources like land and water are depleting, the task will require farming that yields more with less.
It is indisputable that to accomplish that we must look towards innovating the industry. We need another Green Revolution. The Green Revolution refers to the period in time between the 1930’s and 1960’s where research, development, and technology transfer initiatives helped significantly increase global agricultural production through the development of high-yielding varieties of cereal grains, the expansion of irrigation infrastructure, modernization of management techniques, and the distribution of hybridized seeds, synthetic fertilizers, and pesticides to farmers. That revolution was the work of intensive collaboration and innovation that too was driven by an impending food security crisis.
Therefore, in an age where technological advances have allowed us to create previously unfathomable things like virtual reality, artificially intelligent robots, and genome editing, I believe we are particularly well positioned to accomplish another Green Revolution. The resources are there. The intellectual capital is there. The need is there. It is now about bringing all of that together.
When I moved from New York City to Yuma to start building out a pipeline of potential investment opportunities for my social impact fund, one of the things I missed the most (besides an authentic Indian restaurant) was the collaborative startup culture bubbling beneath its surface. While Silicon Valley may take the lion’s share of venture capital funding, many cities have taken note of its successes and developed their own startup ecosystems. These ecosystems are often dominated by the tech scene but they still manage to bring technical and non-technical wannapreneurs together to mingle and find their next business partner; their next developer; their next big idea. This ability to connect, collaborate, and create with people from different fields, perspectives, walks of life is powerful. It’s also not typically found in your small, underserved communities.
Therefore, my first project in Yuma was to bring one of these programs to the community and start sowing the seeds for progress. Having gone through a Startup Weekend program in New York City and seeing first hand not only the local but international attendance it drew, the program’s brand and reach was appealing to me. With a co-working room in the main library that sits vacant most of the time and several weekly entrepreneurship and Small Business Development Corporation workshops that are often unattended, I recognized that building a sustainable startup ecosystem in Yuma couldn’t just be about creating another underutilized resource though. It had to import some of the valuable intellectual capital Yuma needs and it had to highlight to both outsiders and Yumans alike the abundant resources that makes Yuma competitive to major metropolitan areas. After all, whenever I tell people what I do for a living, the response from outsiders to locals is always the same — why Yuma?
Why not Yuma though?
In a world where many startups are chasing after the next big “disruptive” industry idea, I can think of an existing $3.3BN reason with a $5TR kicker to start in Yuma — agriculture. And when it comes to agriculture, Yuma is to ag as Silicon Valley is to tech. Yuma’s rank among all producing counties in the U.S. in terms of acreage for vegetables is the Top 0.1% . Let that sink in. 99.9% of the country cannot compare to Yuma. They’re in the top 0.2% in lettuce and top 9% in durum wheat and forage. As a local driving by the endless crop fields every day, it can be easy to lose sight of the magnitude this little town plays to the country. For the techie or business whiz, they simply have never discovered small town Yuma, Arizona. But, for those serious about being connected to the right resources to create that agtech business that could be a part of the solution to our global food crisis, there’s no better place than this small town where so much of it is grown.
That is why I partnered with Paul Brierley, Executive Director of the Yuma Center for Excellence in Desert Agriculture, to host Startup Weekend’s second ag themed event in the country. Through the tight knit network found in small communities, the organizing committee was able to gather an impressive cast of industry mentors and judges while promoting the local, small businesses and organizations in the community who were happy to sponsor meals and offer discounted fees to support our event. In the end, four teams spent fifty four hours connecting, collaborating, and creating a company all in one weekend. While no solution to mechanizing lettuce harvesting was discovered, the seeds of change were sown.
The support structure that is intrinsic to small communities like Yuma proved themselves by coming together to pull the event off and maybe, just maybe, Yuma’s next title can be the tiny community that made the biggest impact to our global future.