January 18, 2017

CAREERS IN AG: Southwest Tour Opens Students’ Eyes

On December 13, 2016, Travis Taylor, a managerial economics major at UC Davis, stumbled upon exactly what career he wants to pursue when he graduates college: a director of harvest equipment at a company like Taylor Farms.

Travis Taylor was one of 26 students from UC Davis, Cal Poly Pomona and University of Arizona who attended Western Growers’ Careers in Ag Tour on December 12-14, 2016.  During the tour, students majoring in a science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) field had the opportunity to visit a variety of ag operations to learn about the abundance of career opportunities available in the industry, as well as connect one-on-one with professionals in the field.

The tour started at Prime Time International where Co-Founder Mark Nickerson and his team spoke to the students about the importance of technology in drip irrigation.  Students enjoyed hearing how nutrients were directly mixed in through drip irrigation and how technology was used to help automate the process.  The tour then headed out to Prime Time’s mesh house and packing plant where students were mesmerized by the different ways peppers are grown due to the sensitivity of the seed and how they are sorted, packed and shipped.

At Head Start Nursery, the soil science and plant science scholars were especially interested in learning how the nursery grows vegetable transplants and ornamental plugs.  Students received a hands-on tutorial on how to effectively remove pathogens from the soil and how important it is to track the entire process from sowing to shipping.

Organic farming was the main topic of discussion at Duncan Family Farms.  During a riveting, one-hour Q&A session with a team of irrigation managers, agronomists and farm managers, students were able to expand upon what they have read in books.

“What they teach you in schools is spot on but they are broad concepts,” said Jim Tadano, an agronomist at Duncan Family Farms. “When you get to a specific crop, you have to change your growing practices to cater to that crop.  You have to modify your growing techniques based on what you are growing, where you are growing it and when you plan to grow it.”

Day two kicked off in Yuma at a Tanimura & Antle farm where Vice President of Harvest Brian Antle spoke to students about the labor issues facing agriculture.  As Antle took the students out into the field to see how the farmworkers harvest lettuce, he explained how many of Western Growers’ members pay their farmworkers $17 to $22 per hour, plus health care benefits and housing.  Students were able to grasp the severity of the labor shortage and were inspired to become part of the movement to develop technological solutions to help provide relief to the shortage.

Automation was on all the students’ minds as they ventured to Taylor Farms to meet with Chris Rotticci, the director of automated harvest equipment.  The students had the opportunity to see the Automated Romaine Harvester in action and learned how this revolutionary machine uses a water knife to cleanly cut the heads in the field, eliminating the need for employees to cut romaine by hand.

Rotticci connected with the students, giving them tips on how to advance in agricultural companies like Taylor Farms.  After speaking one-on-one with Rotticci and hearing what his job entailed, UC Davis Student Travis Taylor, a junior, knew that this is what he wants to do when he graduates college.  “This trip confirmed my career path,” said Taylor. “Ag is just in my blood.”

JV Smith Company Vice President Kyle Smith, General Manager Matt McGuire and Food Safety Director Fatima Corona gave students a comprehensive session on food safety.  Students learned about the source of the spinach E. coli outbreak in 2006 and how that outbreak affected the industry and food safety standards and practices.

Adding diversity into the tour curriculum, students visited the Yuma Agricultural Center of the University of Arizona to get an inside look into the research component of agriculture.  Students learned how drones are being utilized in the field and heard from renowned “poop doctor” Dr. Paula Rivandeneira.  Hearing how Dr. Rivandeneira’s specialty is to keep a watch on crops to ensure fecal matter is not contaminating food supply helped students better understand that agriculture is not just farmers and farmworkers.  Students were realizing that they could, in fact, use their STEM degrees in agriculture.

“This experience confirmed my career path because of the amount of opportunities I saw were available in the industry,” said Summer Blanco, a sophomore and biology-botany major at Cal Poly Pomona.

The Yuma Desalting Complex rounded out the second day of the tour where students sported hard hats as they toured the facility.  They learned how desalination is achieved through reverse osmosis, and how the plant will be crucial to the sustainability of agriculture as the salt levels in the Colorado River get too high.

On the last day, students woke up bright and early to meet with executives from the Gowan Company in downtown Yuma.  They heard from a collection of speakers, receiving a rounded education on what human resources looks for in candidates, research efforts in seed testing, supply chain management and global product management.  They even had the opportunity to meet Gowan Company Founder Jon Jessen.

The last stop of the tour was in Holtville, California with Jack Vessey of Vessey & Company.  Vessey, along with Bartt Ries and Heather Vessey Garcia, spoke extensively on the importance of soil science.  “There are different areas in the field that need different types of soil.  We treat each area of the field differently,” said Ries.

Vessey took the students out to the cilantro field to show them how water is allocated to the farm.  He also gave them a quick tutorial on the difference between 40-inch beds and 80-inch beds and how the size of the beds depends on what type of crop is being grown.

Throughout the three days, students also had face time with industry leaders during lunch and dinner. During lunch on day one, Phil Rosentrater, deputy director for the economic development agency of Riverside County, spoke to students on the current situation of the Salton Sea and future plans to help recover the body of water.  At dinner, students networked with each other in small groups, and were joined by Kevin Eatherly, president of the Yuma Area Agricultural Council, and Paul Brierley, executive director at the Yuma Center for Excellence for Desert Agriculture.  Eatherly and Brierley spent quality time with each group, getting to know students one-on-one and answering any questions they had about agriculture or their role in the industry.

As the tour came to a close, students were left with a stronger understanding about the types of careers available in ag and how students like them can make a different in helping sustain the world’s food supply.

“I learned so much over the past three days and am so grateful that I was able to experience the industry as a student,” said Nisha Marwaha, a junior at UC Davis studying biological systems engineering. “I now have a better understanding of what needs are yet to be met and where my place in agriculture lies.”

The December 12-14 tour is the third installation of the recently launched Careers in Ag Program.  The purpose of the program is to 1) introduce college students to the variety of careers agriculture has to offer; 2) encourage STEM students to pursue a career in ag; and 3) introduce Western Growers members to highly-intelligent students who they may want to hire in the future.  Originally launched as a pilot program with UC Davis and Cal Poly Pomona, the program has now transformed into a fully-integrated tour that also educates students from the University of Arizona, as well as from California Community Colleges.

The number of applications for the program has continually soared. This last tour received double the number of applications than past tours.  “For us I think it was word of mouth from the students who went in June,” said Lisa Kessler, associate dean of the Huntley College of Agriculture at Cal Poly Pomona.  “I also think the positive publicity around the program made other students more interested.”

The program has educated 56 students to date.  To host a tour or to learn more about the program, contact Stephanie Thara, communication manager at Western Growers, at (949) 885-2256.