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Forbes brings AgTech Summit to Midwest, in downtown Indy


INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. — For the first time, the Midwest hosted the fifth Forbes AgTech Summit for two days last week in Indianapolis, where it moved temporarily from its usual location in Salinas, Calif.

Paul Noglows, founder and producer of the summit staged by Forbes magazine, opened the second day of the conference on Thursday by pointing out while its name sounds futuristic, AgTech’s sights are firmly set on agriculture technology of the present. The previous day, in fact, was spent in tours to agribusinesses using tech.

“We unfortunately do not have the time to spend our time focusing on 2050,” he said, referring to an often-discussed goal in the farm industry about how to provide food and ag products to 9 billion-plus people by mid-century.

“Indiana itself is an ag powerhouse,” added Forbes Media Chair and Editor-in-Chief Steve Forbes, reeling off the state’s transportation advantages in addition to its farming legacy.

Technology and agriculture have been shaking hands for a long time; producers have been working to get more product out of plants and animals long before anyone heard of a genetically modified organism and, he said, “one of the greatest robots in history was the tractor,” which has been around since the late 19th century.

He said agriculture needs to market its tech advances as normal – for instance, not letting people think of GMOs as artificial food. “As somebody pointed out, we don’t refer to airplanes as artificial birds; we don’t refer to cars as artificial horses,” he said.

In addition to more food by 2050, Forbes sees more variety of it in the future, and doesn’t think governments should put up artificial barriers to technological development or trade. Referring to U.S. tariffs this year on Chinese imports, he said while their stated purpose is to force an end to China’s intellectual property theft and other trade violations, he thinks there are better, “laser-focus” ways to address such problems.

“I don’t believe putting sales taxes on ourselves is the way to deal with those abuses,” he said of tariffs.

Forbes briefly interviewed Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb and one of his predecessors, Purdue University President Mitch Daniels, governor from 2005-13. Holcomb spoke chiefly of his administration’s Next Level Connections infrastructure program announced last month, a $1 billion spending plan financed by increases in tolls on heavy-duty commercial vehicles through the state.

Included in this is $600 million to complete extension of the Interstate 69 corridor through the state by 2024, which Forbes referred to as important for shipping nationally, not just in Indiana; $100 million to aid rural broadband installation; and $20 million to lure new direct flights to state airports.

Holcomb mentioned the nonstop transatlantic flight from Indianapolis International Airport to France in late May, a first for the Hoosier hub. This expands the state’s opportunities, he said, not just for overseas human travel but for cargo transport.

He also said when he travels to other countries on trade missions – such as the recent one to Italy – he wants to know the same thing: “Every time I go somewhere, I ask, ‘Who is my competition? Who’s been here the most besides (Indiana)?’”

Further, Holcomb said Indiana has become a center for high-tech investment, and contrasted the state’s successes with business exodus from and tax revenue shortfalls in neighboring Illinois – losses he referred to an exhibit on the ills of cronyism.

In academia, Daniels said traditionally researchers are discouraged from interacting with the private sector and businesses, and instead told to focus on publishing papers. But at Purdue, he said there is a friendly climate toward inventors working with businesses and that its incentive structure is designed to foster innovation and new products in the real world.

Besides lowering legal barriers between those who invent and those who manufacture, the university has put supports in place to encourage new business ventures and patents, including startup companies. In not taking as big a cut of an inventor’s financial success on the front end, Daniels quipped perhaps “somebody will invent the next ‘Intel of agriculture,’ and give us a big (donation) check someday.”

Another way he said he’s tried to improve Purdue is halting tuition increases. While other schools keep raising theirs, he said this will be the sixth year Purdue maintains the same rate, which is around $10,000 a year for in-state students and about $28,000 for out-of-state.

When he started in 2013, Daniels said the admissions committee told him if the university didn’t raise tuition like other schools, it might actually drive down enrollment because it would seem like the institution didn’t have confidence in what it does. He disagreed, and said the opposite has happened.

“We’re doing just fine,” he noted.