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August 4, 2016

Students Learn It’s Not All “Cows and Plows” During Newly Launched Careers in Ag Program

16 students. 2 universities. 10 ag companies. 1 unifying program. Last month, Western Growers officially kicked off its Careers in Ag Program where young scholars from UC Davis and Cal Poly Pomona toured farming operations throughout Monterey County to learn about the various career opportunities agriculture has to offer.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently reported that while there are 60,000 agriculture job openings expected annually in the nation, there are only 35,000 graduates available to fill them. In an effort to fill this workforce gap, Western Growers developed the Careers in Ag Program to encourage college students to pursue science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) careers within the agricultural industry.

“We are helping to lead the effort in building a highly-skilled agricultural workforce and shaping the next generation of ag pioneers,” said Tom Nassif, president & CEO of Western Growers.

Nine students from Cal Poly Pomona and seven from UC Davis formed the first cohort of this new initiative, participating in the program on June 13-15, 2016. Throughout the tour, students were introduced to the educational pathways—courses, majors, internships—that lead to STEM careers in agriculture and related industries.

“With the global population reaching 9.3 billion within the next 30 years, the agriculture industry will be growing at an even faster pace. We are going to need a skilled, knowledgeable and innovative future workforce to help feed the world,” Nassif said.

On the first day of the tour, students hopped on a bus and headed to Monsanto in Woodland. Monsanto representatives gave students an in-depth tutorial on crop science, breeding and genetics with two lab tours and a panel discussion on the different careers available in agriculture. During the panel, students got their first glimpse of professionals in agriculture who were not farmers; the five panelists ranged from experts in vegetable breeding and R&D to supply chain management and plant growth technology.

“It’s not all cows and plows anymore. There are so many career opportunities within agriculture that you could pursue,” said George Gough, director of government affairs of Monsanto Company, to the students while moderating the panel discussion. “You don’t have to come from an ag background—we’ll teach you everything you need to know.”

After shaking hands with the professionals and grabbing business cards at Monsanto, students went to California Giant Berry Farms for a sweet treat. Students received a “Strawberries 101” where they learned how strawberries were grown, irrigated and picked, as well as the different jobs available in the sales and field offices. The favorite part of the afternoon was when the students went into the strawberry field and picked their own strawberries to eat.

Students wrapped up day one with a lively conversation about conservation, the environment and agriculture during dinner with Beau Schoch, an agricultural engineer at the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. Students were able to connect one-on-one with Schoch to learn about his career path and tips about breaking into the industry without an agriculture degree.

The second day was chock-filled with unique experiences both in and out of the field. At Ocean Mist, soil science, nutrient management and food safety were the themes woven in throughout the stop. Students toured the Ocean Mist facility and cooler, where they learned how vegetables are cooled, the importance of keeping produce at specific temperatures and how food safety is a high priority for growers. Next, the students gained hands-on experience when they visited the artichoke and Brussels sprouts fields. Here, they saw first-hand the how these commodities are harvested, gaining a better understanding of the labor challenges facing agriculture. To bring this point home, some of the students wore the artichoke-filled canastas just to see how heavy they were!

The food safety theme continued as representatives of SmartWash Solutions spoke to students about how their chlorine-based wash systems removed pathogens and eliminated cross-contamination of E. coli and salmonella. SmartWash Solutions President Jim Brennan showed students how chemistry and science can be used in agriculture, piquing the interest of many of the students studying nutrition science.

“SmartWash Solutions was most relevant to me because it involved being inventive and coming up with new ideas to keep chemicals at certain levels,” said Leticia Romero, a Cal Poly Pomona sophomore who is majoring in nutrition science.

Ramsay Highlander was the next stop on the tour and Frank Maconachy, the president and CEO, demonstrated how engineering and robotics play a role in agriculture. As one of the largest manufacturers of harvesting aids, students learned how these machines help reduce the need for labor in the field. Students toured the shop, spoke to one of the lead engineers about his projects and heard about machines still in development, including a tomato de-viner.

After visiting Ramsay Highlander, Jaime Luo, a sophomore at UC Davis who is currently undeclared, indicated that she may have found her major. “I’m now considering a major in engineering because I think it would be really cool to design products/systems that others will use.”

GreenGate Fresh rounded out the second day as the last tour, teaching students about how innovation and technology is used to produce quality iceberg, romaine, cabbage blends and spring mixes. One topic that piqued students’ interest was learning the steps it takes to produce value-added items, such as bagged salads.

Students spent the evening chatting about vegetable crops and weed science with Richard Smith from the UC Cooperative Extension Monterey County. Smith gave students a broad understanding about nitrogen in soils and management techniques currently being researched at the UC. Several of the students took the opportunity to ask Smith specific questions about how to get more involved in ag research as an undergraduate.

The students’ three-day, comprehensive lesson in agriculture came full circle at Tanimura & Antle. Brian Antle brought the young scholars out to the lettuce fields, showing them how technology is helping solve the industry’s pressing labor challenges.

During the Plant Tape demonstration, Antle observed that the automated transplanting system “will reduce labor by at least 80 percent. With how difficult it is right now to get workers, this machine will revolutionize ag.”

From the field, students headed to the newly constructed Spreckels Crossing—Tanimura & Antle’s groundbreaking farmworker housing complex.

The experiences at Tanimura & Antle resonated with Charmiza Mendoza, a current AgriBusiness and Food Industry Management major at Cal Poly Pomona. “Seeing firsthand how labor-intensive agriculture is, and the difficulties that some companies face when trying to better the living conditions for their employees, it has inspired me to focus my attention on the political aspects of agriculture,” she said.

The trip concluded with a visit to the Western Growers Center for Innovation & Technology, where students delved into different careers available in agtech. Patrick Zelaya, CEO and founder of HeavyConnect, told students about his path to technology, entrepreneurship and agriculture and students were able to connect one-on-one with HeavyConnect’s team of engineers.

In addition to encouraging students to pursue and apply their STEM-related degrees toward a career in agriculture, another goal of the program is to facilitate career placement between students and agricultural organizations. Western Growers plans to keep in touch with these bright young minds and connect them to internship and job opportunities at WG member companies.

In the future, Western Growers hopes to offer the program multiple times a year in diverse regions across California and Arizona. If any member companies are interested in hosting a tour or have internship/career opportunities for STEM students, please contact Stephanie Thara at (949) 885-2256.