Date: Mar 15, 2022
Magazine:
March/April 2022

By Ann Donahue and Stephanie Metzinger

The Western Growers Center for Innovation & Technology (WGCIT) kicked off 2022 with a “bang” by hosting two AgTechX events that resulted in tangible solutions to move the industry forward. AgTechX Ed at Imperial Valley College was first up, followed by AgTechX Food Safety in Yuma, Ariz.

Below is a recap of each event.

AgTechX Ed at Imperial Valley College

On Jan. 26, 2022, the AgTechX Ed Summit at Imperial Valley College brought together 70 farmers and educators throughout the Imperial Valley and technology companies across the globe to solve one issue: how to cultivate an agricultural workforce equipped with the skills needed to navigate new on-farm technology.

The half-day event featured a series of panel discussions, where the speakers identified several solutions to get more qualified students into agricultural jobs:

  1. Showcase how “ag is sexy” by promoting new tech-based jobs on the farm.
    “We have the opportunity to change the perception of agriculture with all the sexy jobs we now offer with tech and computers,” said Jack Vessey, President of Vessey & Co., during the Chief Executive Officers Panel. “You no longer have to go to Silicon Valley for these sexy jobs. We have those jobs right here on the farm. Ag is sexy.”
     
  2. Break down the perceived barriers of obtaining a college degree, such as access and affordability, by creating joint community college-university level programs.
    For example, during the Education and Workforce Development Strategies Panel, Imperial Valley College and the University of Arizona – Yuma spoke about their streamlined transfer program where ag students can take easily-transferable courses at both colleges at a lower cost.
     
  3. Develop K-12 curriculum that fosters critical thinking skills
    “We need to invest in the K-12 pipeline and go beyond the basics of STEM and Ag,” said Jairo Diaz, the Director of the UC Desert Research and Extension Center, during the Education and Workforce Development Strategies Panel. “We need to put students in teams where they learn how to solve problems. We need to focus on critical thinking skills.”

The Jan. 26 event wrapped up with a fireside chat between Karen Ross, the Secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA), and Dennis Donohue, the Director of Western Growers Center for Innovation & Technology, where they covered everything from the importance of soft skills to the economic benefits of an upskilled workforce in California.

Jobs in agriculture “are multidimensional, so we can’t be siloed in skills. Our future workers have to have both technical skills and soft skills,” said Secretary Ross. “We can teach technical skills, so our focus needs to be on hiring people with spark and who are interested in learning.”

The workforce development activities continued on January 27, where Secretary Ross spent the day with the Holtville and El Centro FFA chapters. The day started at Holtville High School, where Secretary Ross participated in a Q&A with nearly 30 students. The crew then caravanned to a Vessey & Co. romaine field, where FarmWise provided a field demo of their automated weeder and Ag-Bee/Rantizo demonstrated how drones are now being used to apply crop protectants.

The FFA-filled day wrapped up with a Junior AgSharks Competition where FFA students teamed with venture capitalists and farmers to judge up-and-coming technologies of several WGCIT resident start-up companies.

AgTechX Ed Imperial Valley was the second of four total events that anchor the AgTechX Ed Initiative. The initiative, which was launched by WGCIT and CDFA in 2021 to help transition the agriculture workforce to master rapidly developing agricultural technology, was initially rolled out at the first AgTechX Ed event at Reedley College. The last two AgTechX events will be at Hartnell College in Salinas, Calif., on April 13, 2022, and Woodland Community College in Woodland, Calif., on June 1, 2022. For more information on AgTechX Ed, visit www.agtechworkforce.com.

AgTechX Food Safety

On Feb. 2, 2022, in Yuma, Ariz., the AgTechX Food Safety event brought together the region’s growers, processors, scientists and innovators to discuss ways to accelerate the creation of a top-tier toolkit of rapid diagnostics and prevention technologies to keep the nation’s supply of fresh produce safer. The event at the Four Points Sheraton in Yuma was a collaboration between the WGCIT, the Center for Produce Safety and the Yuma Center of Excellence for Desert Agriculture.

The day’s first panel focused on Industry Issues, which looked at opportunities to prevent foodborne illness, which was moderated by Bonnie Fernandez-Fenaroli, the Executive Director for the Center for Produce Safety.

Sonia Salas, Assistant Vice President, Science at Western Growers, discussed the organization’s innovative Food Safety Data Sharing platform. “Data silos are not new,” she said. “With this platform, we’re working to break down the silos. Trust, users, scale—we took those three things into consideration. We want to provide a platform users feel comfortable with so we can start having an industry-wide narrative.”

The next panel, Regulatory Views, was a discussion between JVSmith Companies President and CEO Vic Smith with research scientist and consultant Tom Sidebottom and Barbara Cassens, the Director for the Office of Partnerships at the U.S. Food & Drug Administration.

“At one point, communication between the agency and industry opened up,” said Sidebottom, who used to work for the FDA. “But somewhere along the line that changed and tapered off. If we can’t have a conversation, the data doesn’t matter.”

During the event’s keynote, Dr. David W. K. Acheson, President and CEO of The Acheson Group, appeared remotely to discuss the field’s learnings that have occurred since the 2006 spinach E. coli outbreak.

In addition, the AgTechX Food Safety Cohort was unveiled at the event during a Meet the Innovators panel and networking opportunity. This global group of innovators will receive exclusive resources to help them launch and scale their projects that specialize in prevention technologies and rapid diagnostics.

“We are excited to welcome a talented group of innovators and entrepreneurs to Yuma to begin a year of focus on accelerating new food safety solutions,” Donohue said. “We have learned that co-development between growers and processers and technology companies is how progress really happens.”

The initial members of the cohort are: Javier Atencia, CEO & Founder, Pathotrak; Alex Athey, CEO, En Solución Inc.; Rafael Davila, Founder, Priority Sampling; Dr. Eyal Gerecht, President & CEO, TeraBAT, Inc.; Mike Hogan PhD, Co-Founder and Chief Scientific Officer, PathogenDx; Tom Jacobs, VP Sales and Marketing, SnapDNA; Marc Petitpas, Senior Director, North America Sales, ScanTech Sciences, Inc.; Carl “Skip” Rapp, CEO TeraBAT, Inc.; Jonathan Sierra, CEO, Yarok Microbio Ltd. And Chip Starns, Co-Founder, EVP, ScanTech Sciences, Inc.

On Feb. 3, the cohort took a tour of growers and processors in the Yuma region to help aid their real-world understanding of the food safety innovations most needed by those with boots on the ground in the industry. Stops included a tour of the area’s ag water delivery system with the Wellton-Mohawk Irrigation and Drainage District; visits to Nickerson Farms and GreenGate Fresh; lunch at the Arizona Western College Agriculture Research Lab; and a UV Water Treatment demonstration at JV Farms.

The AgTechX Food Safety Yuma event was the first in a yearlong initiative on the subject, with the next two events in the series planned for later this year in Woodland, Calif. and King City, Calif. More information on these events will be available on wga.com in the coming weeks.

About AgTechX

As part of the Western Growers key focus to bringing agricultural technologies to farmers, the WGCIT created AgTechX—signature events where growers, researchers, technologists and entrepreneurs gather in key agricultural production areas for riveting discussions about future farming technology. The first AgTechX event launched in Brawley on Feb. 8, 2018, and has since been held in numerous rural communities all across California and Arizona. In total, nearly 1,500 people have attended the AgTechX events.

WG Staff Contact

Stephanie Metzinger
Senior Manager, Communications
949-885-2256

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