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July 15, 2020

The Warriors: Men & Women Who are Changing the Face of Agriculture

War, by definition, is a sustained effort to deal with or end a particularly unpleasant or undesirable situation. With war, inaction is not an option. This is especially true in agriculture, where inaction puts the nation’s food supply in jeopardy.

There is a myriad of passionate agri-warriors across the United States who are fighting for the right to feed our nation. Though these farmers and ranchers are growing the healthy food that provides sustenance and nutrition for millions of people, their noble efforts are still met with adversity. In addition to battling factors out of their control such as the growing scarcity of natural resources, they must also deal with regulatory pressures that only seem to intensify.

Take, for example, the California Department of Pesticide Regulation’s decision last year to ban the use of insecticide chlorpyrifos, making it even more difficult to protect the state’s food supply from invasive species. Or the dramatic increases in the Adverse Effect Wage Rate by the U.S. Department of Labor, which detrimentally affects the ability of American farmers to access and afford a legal, stable supply of labor.

Farmers, especially in the West, face the most stringent regulatory environment in the world, and more often than not, it’s an uphill battle. However, they understand the consequences of inaction, and leaders throughout the industry are rising to the occasion to fiercely fight for, as well as discover, solutions that will pave the way for a better tomorrow. These warriors are taking monumental steps that will forever transform the industry—whether it be through advocacy, innovation or community outreach.

Who are these leaders lobbying for more freedom on the farm? Who are the innovators thinking outside the box for solutions? Who are the pioneers turning to technology for an answer?

Here are five men and women who are changing the face of agriculture.

Robert Sakata: Mobilizing the Fight for Colorado Farming

Robert Sakata is a founding member, and current president, of the Colorado Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association (CFVGA)—an organization dedicated to advancing and protecting Colorado’s fresh fruit and vegetable farmers. As the owner of Sakata Farms, he has experienced, first hand, how policies and regulations created by lawmakers and administrators unfamiliar with agriculture can have adverse effects.

“A lot of times, you have to be at the table to make sure you are not losing ground,” said Sakata. “There are so few of us left in agriculture and when there is an opportunity, we need to make sure that our voice is heard.”

Prior to CFVGA, there was no unified front that supported fresh produce growers throughout Colorado. When a multistate Listeria outbreak in 2011 was linked to cantaloupes in Colorado, melon growers lacked the resources needed to properly deal with the incident. It was then that Sakata, Adrian Card of the Colorado State University Extension, and a host of local growers expedited the establishment of CFVGA. Today, CFVGA, which is a partner of Western Growers, serves as the go-to resource for Colorado produce growers in five core areas: food safety, labor, water, business development, and health/nutrition.

In addition to his involvement in CFVGA, Sakata also advocates for farmers through his involvement on local boards such as Colorado’s Water Quality Control Commission, Colorado Ag Water Alliance, Colorado Water Congress, Interbasin Compact Committee, Adams County Farm Bureau and Colorado Farm Bureau. He regularly travels to Washington, DC, with Western Growers and other ag organizations to share his experience as a farmer with legislators.

“When it comes to topics that directly affect farmers like water or immigration reform, if we aren’t involved and not voicing our needs, who knows what else we would be losing. We need to be at the table, not on the table.”

A.G. Kawamura: Eradicating Hunger Through Urban Farming

As a progressive urban farmer who has dedicated his life to ending hunger, A.G. Kawamura believes that domestic food security is more than a national movement; it is a common-sense philosophy. Kawamura, an owner/partner of Orange County Produce, has a lifetime of experience working within the shrinking rural and urban boundaries of Southern California and has made it a goal to discover and implement innovative methods to address food insecurity through urban agriculture. This includes working with edible landscapes to experiment with different ways of production, as well as farming on undeveloped land such as parking lots, rooftops, open space under power lines, and between runways on an abandoned military base.

“People talk about being an urban farmer as if it’s something completely different than being a rural farmer, but the truth is that both are dealing with taking the land and transforming it so it can produce product for you,” said Kawamura in a recent Western Growers Instagram Takeover. “The biggest difference between urban and rural is that you have to look for your pockets of land in an urban area because there’s not a lot of it left.”

In 2011, Kawamura founded Solutions for Urban Agriculture, a nonprofit that strategically repurposes urban properties for the sustainable production of farm products—all in an effort to recover food to help those in need and ensure food security. Solutions for Urban Agriculture offers educational programming for creative management of resources and implements innovative projects that bolster resiliency within the food system. Through his nonprofit and farm, he is engaged in building a Farm and Food Lab at the OC Great Park in Irvine, Calif., to promote food production in urban settings. Average citizens can visit the Farm and Food Lab to learn how to transform their backyard (or even front porch!) into a cornucopia of fruit and vegetable production.

“The opportunity to farm in an urban area exists all over the planet and not just here in Orange County,” said Kawamura. “We’ve been able to show that there are a lot of properties that are going to stay open and available if there is a willing landowner and, more importantly, a willing farmer that might want to put it into play.”

Vic Smith: Championing Technology to Create Advancement

JVSmith Companies President/CEO Vic Smith has a long track record as an advocate for innovation and technology within the specialty crop industry. As an early adopter of agtech, Smith has pushed agriculture to embrace technology as a solution to the industry’s most pressing issues, such as food safety and labor.

He played an integral role in the launch of Western Growers Center for Innovation & Technology in 2015 and today continues to support the center as a sponsor. He was among the first to invest in technological solutions coming out of the center and is currently working with several startups to help bring their ideas to market. In fact, Smith now sits on the board of one of the inaugural startups to join the center, iFoodDecisionSciences, where he helps guide the advancement of technology to enhance food safety. Smith was also tapped to participate in the Produce Traceability Initiative to further advocate for supply chain-wide adoption of electronic traceability.

In addition to promoting the use of data to improve traceability and farming operations, Smith is a champion of robotics as a solution for the industry’s labor problems. He has worked with the University of Arizona to develop autonomous equipment to help with planting and thinning of vegetable crops and continues to promote automation in the desert growing regions.

Ellen Brokaw: Campaigning to Improve the Lives of Farm Workers

Ellen Brokaw, president of Brokaw Ranch Company and a prominent member of Ventura County’s agricultural community, has long been an inspirational leader in the campaign to improve the lives of farm workers and their families.

She was a founding member of the Ag Futures Alliance Ventura County which, in 2002, produced a report on the dire need for farm worker housing. Two years later, she helped organize the first Farm Worker Housing Summit, which called attention to the need for better and more affordable homes for farm workers. The summit attracted more than 150 volunteers to join the cause. From that was born an education and advocacy program called House Farm Workers!

Today, Brokaw serves as treasurer and founding chair for House Farm Workers!, where she is part of the team that advocates on behalf of farm workers, educating elected representatives and the public about the need for safe, decent and affordable farm worker housing.

Mario Pacheco: Rising Through a Crisis

When news about the COVID-19 outbreak started surfacing in 2019, West Pak Avocado CEO Mario Pacheco anticipated the impacts of the pandemic and identified areas where West Pak would be required to retool. He quickly implemented an aggressive plan to prioritize the health and safety of West Pak employees, which included elevating sanitization efforts, dividing production floor workstations with protective plexiglass to enforce social distancing, and actively screening all employees and vendors for coronavirus symptoms.

West Pak also made swift strides to expand its technological capabilities to guarantee that facilities remain safe and operational. This included adding automation and updating equipment to reduce unwarranted bottlenecks; installing newly designed HID-based door systems to reduce human-to-human contact points; and adding thermal detection camera systems and facial recognition software to alert internal staff of possible risk detection.

In addition to proactively making changes throughout West Pak operations, Pacheco prioritized helping those affected by COVID-19. The company donates pallets of avocados weekly to Feeding America Riverside | San Bernardino (FARSB), the Inland Empire’s largest hunger-relief organization. West Pak’s donation aids FARSB’s efforts to serve individuals with fresh produce, snacks, and boxes of emergency shelf-stable items to ensure that families are not going hungry through the COVID-19 pandemic.

“West Pak is giving back to our communities to help feed those in need in a time of crisis,” said Pacheco, in a press release. “Now more than ever before, people need our help. We have the ability to provide and the desire to step up where we can be most effective.”

These five pioneers are prime examples of how farmers pivot and adapt when faced with challenges, while simultaneously fighting for those in need. They are a small sample of the types of leaders that exist within western agriculture who continue to advocate for change that not only benefits the industry but the nation and world. As we enter an even more challenging environment due to the significant political, social and economic impacts caused by a monumental pandemic, we can expect more men and women in agriculture to step up to the plate and ignite change that reverberates around the globe.