November 15, 2023

Rancho Cielo Gives Youth Navigating Challenges a Boost with New Agtech Program

Omar Amezola, a student at Rancho Cielo in Salinas, Calif. was amazed by one technology in particular when he attended the 2023 FIRA USA event in September with his classmates. “I saw all these different kinds of drones and what they did,” Amezola said. “I went to go ask what they did, and they said that it looks at the plants and it uses x-ray vision and it looks under the leaves.”

Amezola, a student in the new agtech department at Rancho Cielo, didn’t know that working with drones was even a career option. Now he does, and he has a plan to achieve his goal. He’s going to work with Rancho Cielo to earn his commercial certificate for drone operations.

For many of the students at Rancho Cielo in Salinas, Calif., their experience at the school isn’t a fresh start, it’s a first real start. And for some of those students, the beginning of their adult life will start in agtech, thanks to the new agtech training branch of Rancho Cielo.

The seeds of Rancho Cielo first began to germinate in 2000 when Superior Court Judge John M. Phillips saw a need to stop first-time offenders from becoming repeat offenders–preventing a mistake from becoming a pattern of incidents. On Oct.10, 2004, situated among quintessentially California hills in Salinas, Rancho Cielo opened its doors to offer an alternative to students who needed a different path. The school will celebrate two decades of graduating students in 2025, and some of those who have graduated since those early days are still on the campus walking around wearing their Rancho Cielo Alumni shirts and assisting the current class of students.

The mission of the school is clear: “Rancho Cielo empowers participants to become accountable, competent, productive and responsible citizens, through education, job training and individualized counseling. Participants learn how to make good choices—choices for the future, choices to stay out of trouble, choices to be productive and to act as positive role models for their children. Rancho Cielo’s work reaches much further than those who enroll in our programs; it also touches participants’ families, their children, parents, grandparents, and relatives who witness their accomplishments and new-found dedication.” Through the years, the different job training resources have grown from culinary training, automotive restoration, welding and now agtech.

Started in 2019 with support from Western Growers members and staff, the agtech program gives students real-world experience and classroom student on everything from electronic and computational theory to drone operation. The goal? “Upon program completion, students become well-rounded professionals poised to revolutionize agriculture, equipped with the knowledge and skills to thrive in its rapidly evolving landscape,” according to Rancho Cielo.

Those rapid changes in the agricultural industry arise from the proactive response to external pressures. One of the constraints growers are experiencing is a dwindling workforce. The growing need for a variety of agtech development is to compensate for an absence of skilled labor to harvest, pack and ship fresh produce. The aim of agtech isn’t to automate jobs that a person could have; it’s filling a void where someone once stood.

Though agtech is a solution in many ways, those within the industry are aware of the new challenge that it presents: there must be a new wave in the workforce that has the education to manage the technology. Many in the industry see the potential for those specialists in the communities that have already been bringing fresh food the market. The multigenerational story of those working in the fields will very likely look very different from the past generation to the next.

But navigating the complex STEM curriculum requires someone to help guide students. Western Growers is currently working with California colleges by integrating modules that are designed to fit with coursework that already exists. Rancho Cielo is also working with this structure to help assist the industry with the goal to educate and open employment options for students.

For the students at Rancho Cielo, their time spent in classes and training is more than meeting an industry need, it’s a way to examine and try out different elements of their growing identity. Like every teenager, they have both the luxury and the work of figuring out who they want to be. Though this is a lifelong pursuit for all, the training at Rancho Cielo is an opportunity to establish a career and a sense of purpose in the initial stages of adulthood.

Student Gerardo Alvarez spoke to the benefit of the adaptability of the support that attendees of the school receive from the school when new needs and interests arise. “This school is very adapting to how you live,” Alvarez said. “So, if transportation is a problem or families, or emotions or your body’s a problem, they always adapt to it, which I love this about it. It’s the difference of hearing and listening, so I feel like this school is kind of like a big step.”

Those steps for the students, the school and the industry are a bright way forward. Longtime supporter of the program David Gill, Partner at Rio Farms, sees the value of his continued support of the program. “There’s a lot of connection between the industry and the county,” Gill said, “and they’re just getting better at it. It’s really a growth story…If [someone] goes up there and they visit [Rancho Cielo], they see it. And they see the results. It’s a no brainer. That’s the thing that everybody likes to see.”

Student Amelia Preciado, a participant in the agtech program, shared what the program looks like from within: “If you really want ideas of what you want to do in life, they’re very supportive. They help you and every single thing that you need, you can talk to them about anything and if you feel stuck or don’t know if you’re going on the right path, they’ll make sure that you’re doing good. I really love that.”

When the interviewed Rancho Cielo agtech students were asked what they wanted their lives to look like by the time they’re 25─if they could have anything they wanted ─ they all had a variation of the same answer. They want security for themselves and their family. “The only thing I want is a house,” said Amezola, “because with a house I’ll be fine. As long as I have good work, somewhere to work at, and as long as I have somewhere to live.” Alvarez’s hopes are similar: “I want to have a good job, make sure I’m secured financially, and not for myself, also for my family. Whatever problem [they] have, I always know I can help them out.”

There are many who offer support to Rancho Cielo. Familiar names like Taylor Farms, Andy Boy, Driscoll’s, Ocean Mist, Rio Farms and many more recognize the value of this vocational training school, but there are many more ways to support this initiative, especially through employment opportunities for graduating seniors. Visit for more information.

With continued community and educational support, the students at Rancho Cielo can and should experience the life they imagine.