Where Art Meets Agriculture Steinbeck Center hosts exhibition celebrating women in agtech

Daphnee Parachini | Provided image


By Amy Wu 

A tapestry of photographs of women innovators in agriculture technology is set to fill an art gallery in Salinas next month, thanks to a group of determined artists and communicators who sought to tell their stories.

The special exhibition “From Farms to Incubators: Women in Agtech Exhibition” will launch on Nov. 12 at the National Steinbeck Center in downtown Salinas. The exhibition includes photographs, paintings, mixed art, sculpture, carvings and film by artists in the Salinas Valley and beyond, celebrating women innovators and entrepreneurs. It is arguably one of the first art exhibitions to focus on women in agriculture and technology.

From Farms to Incubators” is the result of serendipity but also careful planning. As a journalist, I believe storytelling is a strong vehicle for connecting, outreach and sharing information and knowledge.

The backstory of the exhibition started in early 2018 after I completed a documentary film, “From Farms to Incubators,” which tells the stories of women agtech entrepreneurs. At the time I began writing a companion book. The handful of stories I started out with became two handfuls, and then a dozen.

In early 2019 I enlisted Dexter J. Farm, a photographer based in Salinas, to help take photos of the women. This was a passion project. Dexter and I, and subsequently the artists and filmmakers who joined in, were all driven by a passion to uplift the voices of women in agriculture in a sector that remains male dominated. Then there were the subjects themselves, who were equally  generous in sharing their stories.

The timing for an exhibition on agtech seemed ripe. Since 2012 the City of Salinas has identified the agtech sector as a priority, especially in economic development. The Western Growers Center for Innovation and Technology, based inside the Taylor Building, was seeing a steady growing number of agtech startups.

As a reporter for the Salinas Californian covering local government and agriculture, I myself observed the dearth of women leaders in agriculture. This started my search for minority women entrepreneurs in agtech. By asking the question repeatedly and relentlessly, I eventually unearthed a handful of stories and then more.

Since 2018, the documentary has been screened at dozens of events and venues including WGCIT, EcoFarm, the Carmel International Film Festival, Techonomy, SXSW and the Salinas Valley AgTech Summit, along with smaller screenings at Hartnell College and Rancho Cielo. The screenings were often followed by a panel discussion featuring women in the film.

The screenings drew a robust audience and an engaging discussion about the role of women in agriculture. What are the challenges and opportunities for women in this field? The initial question of why aren’t more women in agtech had driven the initial project, but the greater vision was to get youth, especially young women, to consider opportunities in agriculture.

Agriculture is much more than tractors and overalls — it is market research, data analytics, programming and communications. In Salinas Valley alone, it is a $9 billion industry, with 80 percent of the U.S.’s leafy greens produced there.

Growers are facing tremendous challenges, many of them a domino effect of climate change that include water and land supply issues, loss of arable land and a severe labor shortage as fieldworkers age out. In addition, there are skyrocketing business costs and a decline in young people who are taking over the family farms. Farmers are under significant pressure to produce enough food to feed what is forecast to be 9 billion people globally by 2050.

Finally, COVID-19 has magnified the continuing need across the country, and the world, to access fresh food including vegetables, fruits, grains and meat.

If film and the written word are powerful vehicles to extending a much-needed discussion about women in agriculture, why not art?


JC Gonzalez | Provided image

Art meets agriculture 

In early 2019, I connected with Steinbeck Center executive director Michele Speich, who leapt at the idea of an exhibition showcasing women innovators in agtech. The art was already organically being produced. Dexter had traveled hundreds of miles by car to follow up with the women profiled in the book or featured in the film to capture further images.

I tapped JC Gonzalez, an award-winning artist and teacher based in Salinas, for his time and talent. I had always admired JC for his dedication in sharing his knowledge with the community, especially youth. He created five original pieces of mixed art for the exhibition, including one titled “Rebecca” that portrays a female farmworker.

I connected with Sergey Jivetin, a New York-based artist with a unique skill of seed carving. Would he be open to taking a crack at carving the seed of the red melon fruit? Red melon was the flagship fruit for Thuy-Le Vuong’s agbio startup The Redmelon Company.

One evening I watched wide-eyed as Jivetin painstakingly created art on the seed, and later carved the exhibition logo on a lima bean. It then turned out that Vuong herself is a talented painter and sculptor. She agreed to lend a painting, and also create a sculpture around the red melon theme.

In 2020, I became acquainted with Salinas artist and teacher Daphnee Parachini. Parachini, whose business Roaring Mice Studio had closed due to COVID, contributed original paintings of Salinas Valley farms to the exhibition.

From the start, I had the vision of incorporating a series of films that centered on women in farming as part of the exhibition. I emailed Clare Chambers at ITVS to ask for a list of recommended films. Out of that came “Dolores,” “The Seed Saver,” “East of Salinas,” and “Fear No Fruit: The Frieda Caplan Documentary.”

On this journey I’d met dozens of women who worked in agriculture, their stories understated and untold. One of them was Celsa Ortega, a farmworker who was now running her own farm through the ALBA Program. I connected with Eugenia Renteria, a young filmmaker based in Watsonville who produced a video portrait of Celsa.


Thuy Le-Vuong | Provided image

A silver lining

COVID should have blocked the exhibition and overall project. The pandemic shuttered businesses, schools and museums, and has impacted almost every individual and household in some way. In light of what was happening, I began wondering whether an exhibition would be possible. Instead, the project appeared to pick up steam as each of the storytellers and creators found added inspiration during these dark times.

“This was an incredible opportunity to meet and photograph leading women in the agriculture technology and agri-business industry. Innovation and technologies from these women show a glimpse of how farming is changing and the people behind it,” Dexter said.

The Steinbeck Center remains closed indefinitely due to the pandemic, but the show — to the joy of everyone involved — goes on virtually. This was a carefully thought-out decision rather than happenstance. There is no better time to celebrate women in leadership positions. The year 2020 is the centennial of women’s suffrage and with the recent passing of Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a reminder that we need more women at the decision-making helm in all walks of life.

My passion to unearth underreported stories and amplify new voices is what led me to highlight the stories of emerging communities in agriculture. Ultimately, I hope the exhibition, film series and book serves as vehicles to inspire youth — especially those from rural or underserved communities — to consider that agriculture offers an amazing range of opportunities that involve innovation.


JC Gonzalez | Provided image

For more information

What: Virtual exhibition launch of “From Farms to Incubators: Women in Agtech Exhibition

When: Nov. 12, 4-6 p.m.

Where: Online

To register go to: https://attendee.gotowebinar.com/register/6934663127276896524

The exhibition is inspired by a forthcoming book of the same name, to be published by California-based Linden Books in 2021.

After the exhibition closes on Jan. 12, 2021 in Salinas, it is expected to travel to Gonzales, Sacramento, Fresno and Merced.

Amy Wu an award-winning journalist and writer for the women’s ag and agtech movement. Wu was previously a reporter for the Salinas Californian where she reported on local government and agriculture. She is the founder of From Farms to Incubators, a multimedia platform that highlights women in food, farming and agtech. For updates about the exhibition, go to @farmstoincubators on Facebook. 

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Amy Wu

About Amy Wu

Amy Wu an award-winning journalist and writer for the women’s ag and agtech movement. Wu was previously a reporter for the Salinas Californian where she reported on local government and agriculture. She is the founder of From Farms to Incubators, a multimedia platform that highlights women in food, farming and agtech. For updates about the exhibition, go to @farmstoincubators on Facebook.