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WGA elevates Talley, honors Nassif at Annual Meeting

At the Western Growers Annual Meeting in mid-November, Ryan Talley of Talley Farms was elected chairman of the board for 2019-20 and longtime President Tom Nassif was presented with the association’s prestigious WG Award of Honor in recognition of his service to the organization and the agricultural industry. Nassif will retire on Feb. 1, 2020, completing 18 years as president.rom1Ron Ratto of Ratto Bros. passing the chairman gavel to Ryan Talley of Talley Farms.

The three-day event also featured a bioplastics startup company securing a $500,000 investment after winning Western Growers proprietary AgSharks competition, which is patterned after the popular Shark Tank reality show. Coincidentally, Daymond John, one of the Shark Tank judges, wowed the crowd as the keynote speaker during one of the event’s general sessions. Ronald Reagan economist Arthur Laffer also was received well as the keynote speaker during the Political Action Committee luncheon. Another business session featured three financial experts discussing the economy and investment strategies.

More than 500 people attended the event in Maui as Western Growers celebrated its 94th anniversary year on Nov. 10-13 at the Wailea Beach Resort. The meeting also included several networking opportunities, including a golf tournament and a number of social gatherings.

Talley, co-owner and farm manager of Talley Farms in Arroyo Grande, CA, is serving as chairman for a one-year term, taking over the responsibilities of the outgoing chairman, Ron Ratto, president of Ratto Bros. Inc. in Modesto, CA. “Ryan’s successful tenure at Talley Farms and his significant personal accomplishments make him the ideal choice to be the next Western Growers’ chairman of the board of directors,” said Western Growers President and Chief Executive Officer Nassif. “With his stellar track record on the board, there is no doubt in my mind that Ryan, along with the rest of the Western Growers board, is poised to truly lead the organization and the fresh produce industry to even greater heights.”

Talley spearheads Talley Farms, a diversified family-owned farming company and grower-shipper of assorted vegetables, avocados, lemons and grapes. “Western Growers has been a staple organization in the agriculture industry for nearly a century, and Talley Farms is proud to have been a part of its legacy since 1970,” said Talley. “I am both eager and honored to embark on this new role as Western Growers’ chairman of the board of directors, working with the rest of the board to further our commitment to the industry.”

The board selected Albert Keck of Hadley Date Gardens as senior vice chairman; Stuart Woolf of Woolf Enterprises as vice chairman; Carol Chandler of Chandler Farms as treasurer; and Vic Smith of JV Smith Cos. as secretary.

Nassif, who joined Western Growers in 2002 during tumultuous times, has guided the association for the past two decades. It currently has a sound business model, is in great financial shape and is a leader in many different areas of agricultural representation including government affairs, transportation and the insurance arena. The association is the leading provider of health insurance to both the farmworker and farm owners communities, and offers many other business insurance products as well. In virtually every area of representation, the organization grew stronger and more diverse under Nassif’s leadership.

During the Award of Honor dinner, his son, Christian Nasiff, took the audience on a tour of his career, which included stops as an agricultural labor lawyer in California, a political appointee of Ronald Reagan in Washington, DC, and as a U.S. ambassador in Morocco. The WGA CEO was noted for his tireless efforts on behalf of the industry especially in the areas of immigration reform and securing a spot for specialty agriculture in the U.S. farm bill.

Several weeks ago, it was announced that, after a thorough search, WG Executive Vice President Dave Puglia will succeed Nassif as both president and CEO. “My service to Western Growers and the fresh produce industry has been a fulfilling culmination to my career,” Nassif said. “Every day since 2002, my inspiration has been derived from the hard-working, innovative, and ethical family farmers who comprise our membership. I am proud of the major strides we have taken as an industry during my tenure, and it brings me great satisfaction knowing that the future of our association is secure in the hands of Dave Puglia.”

One of the highlights of the Annual Meeting was the 2019 AgSharks Competition, which featured five start-up companies giving pitches to a panel of judges in an effort to secure investment funds. Prior to the event, many more companies had applied for the opportunity to present with off-site judging whittling dozens of entries to those five companies.

mobius pbc, an early-stage company that creates waste-based biodegradable polymers as a plastic substitute with many agricultural uses, won the pitch competition and was offered the opportunity to negotiate with S2G Ventures (Seed 2 Growth) representatives on stage. The pre-event publicity noted that the start-up companies were competing for a $250,000 equity investment, with the caveat that S2G was not obligated to reach an on-the-spot agreement with the winner.

After some negotiations, S2G did offer and Mobius accepted a $500,000 equity investment. S2G representatives indicated that they were interested in being long-term partners. “Improving and maintaining the sustainability of our food system is critical for the future of agriculture and requires innovations focused on everything from the 260 billion tons of unavoidable organic food waste produced each year to the half-million tons of single-use plastics used on the farm for things such as mulch film and seed coatings,” said Tony Bova, CEO and co-founder of mobius. “At mobius, we're incredibly excited to have S2G and Western Growers as partners, helping us develop technologies to convert that unavoidable organic waste into much-needed products like waste-based fertilizers, biodegradable seed and fertilizer coatings, and biodegradable mulch films and nursery containers. The direct connection with the front lines of the food system sustainability challenge -- our growers -- will be invaluable as we push for a circular economy in agriculture and pursue our mission to create a world where ‘There's Wonder in Waste.’”

Chuck Templeton, managing director at S2G Ventures, said, “Western Growers, through the AgSharks competition, continues to lead the industry in supporting entrepreneurs that are building solutions for the best growers in the world. Combining our investment in mobius with WG’s market knowledge and access, we can more rapidly deliver on building a healthy and sustainable food system.”

Templeton was on the judges’ panel, which also included Neill Callis, general manager at Turlock Fruit Co. Inc.; Audre Kapacinskas, vice president at S2G Ventures; Frank Maconachy, president and CEO at Ramsay Highlander Inc.; Aidan Mouat, CEO and co-founder at Hazel Technologies; Craig Reade, partner at Bonipak Produce; and Matthew Walker, managing director at S2G Ventures.

AgSharks, which launched in 2017 to help budding agtech startups bring their inventions from development to market, was the first agtech event to offer real-time investment opportunities in front of a live audience. “As agriculture faces an intensification of regulatory pressures and a growing scarcity of resources -- shortage of skilled labor, exhaustion of land and depletion of water -- farmers are increasingly turning to innovation and technology to remain viable,” said Nassif. “We are encouraged by talented agtech entrepreneurs, such as those at mobius, that are inventing solutions to help farmers accomplish their noble goal of feeding the world.”

mobius’ first product is a proprietary, biodegradable polymer made from lignin, a natural material found in all grasses and trees that is produced as waste at a rate of over 50 million tons each year by the paper and biofuel industries. With this biopolymer, mobius is creating bio-based, biodegradable plastic pellets for applications in agriculture, foodservice packaging, and horticulture. The applications for these products include thermoplastic materials for plantable horticultural and nursery containers and plastic mulch films.