March 1, 2023

Want an Intern? Western Growers’ Next Gen Ag Workers Program Can Help

“The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.” —Mark Twain

Last year, the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) awarded Western Growers $750,000 to work with two- and four-year universities to build cross-disciplinary programs to help cultivate the next generation of farmworkers. Since receiving the award, Western Growers has joined forces with community college faculty, growers and the CDFA to pave the way for a new generation to find their place in the world of agriculture.

Walt Duflock, Vice President of Innovation at Western Growers, announced the grant by saying: “This grant gives us a chance to develop and deliver curriculum modules that help teach students the key skills growers and AgTech companies have identified as crucial. One of the key requirements is for cross-disciplinary students who know a variety of subjects, from engineering to agronomy to biology to computer science. This collaboration between WG members, partners and California educators will ensure growers and agtech companies get access to students who are AgTech enabled the day they finish school.”

After a year of collaboration and effort, the modules created to achieve this aim are set to take flight. With modules set to be integrated into the academic structure in the Spring 2023 semester and the first set of interns ready for Western Growers members soon, a prevailing sense of excitement exists: This is just the beginning.

The Next Gen Ag Workers Program has many facets, but the core concept that makes them all shine is the goal to provide students with the “a-ha” moment of realization that the agricultural industry has a lot to offer in the way of an exciting and rewarding career.

“They may not have even realized what’s out there for them,” said Carrie Peterson, Next Generation Ag Worker Program Grant Manager, who helps implement the CDFA grant. Leimone Waite, a Horticulture Instructor at Shasta College, echoed the sentiment: “I get that all the time from students. I teach a lot of introductory plant science and horticulture courses, and every semester half the students in the class are like, ‘Oh, we had no idea that it was so involved.’ Even though they had an interest, they just had no idea that it was such a technical field.”

It’s this technology-rich agricultural environment that needs these excited students, and, in turn, their need for a specialized curriculum is not being ignored. “What can we do to quickly look at these skill gaps that members and employers are seeing and then how can we address those?” Peterson said. “So, we opted for a module format…we were very mindful of how to quickly deliver the really essential skills.”

A key feature of the program’s utility is that the modules are designed to integrate into coursework that already exists. A team of college faculty and industry experts created 10 modules to be used by community colleges throughout California.

These modules are Irrigation Practices, Programmable Logic Controllers, Local Commodities Knowledge, GPS/Geospatial Technologies, Precision Ag Software Skills, Soft Skills, Internet of Things (Artificial Intelligence and Data Collection/Monitoring), Unmanned Aerial Systems, Communications, and Food Safety.

According to Terry Brase, Director of Farm of the Future at West Hills College, these modules answer a need for instruction to succeed in a more technology-heavy, data-driven work environment. “The concept of having modules where instructors can adapt them in different ways or to fit the courses they’re already teaching I think is extremely important,” Brase said.

Creating modules that are applicable to the industry’s needs require the collaboration of the creators of the modules, the instructors who will use them, and the growers who know the needs of the industry.

“This is a really good way for the colleges throughout the state to collaborate with each other on, first, determining the skills that industry is really interested in our students working on and possessing, and at the same time providing quality curriculum that is consistent at the different campuses because we’re working together,” said Dorothy Farias, Assistant Professor and Department Chair for Ag at Ventura College. “I think it’s probably one of the biggest benefits of a project like this is having that opportunity to have the sense of unity within the community colleges and the growers.”

In order for the modules to have practical value, grower’s needs were considered in the content’s development. Peterson noted that integrating the language used in agriculture—everything from irrigation to unmanned aerial systems—was critical for students in order to enter the field with baseline knowledge. Because the insight is coming directly from growers, students are sure to get a head start on merging into the work environment.

The adaptability of the module system means that content can be added or modified to account for developments and changes that the future will bring. During its year of development, a new component of the program extends the classroom education into real and practical opportunities. Students who complete five of the 10 modules unlock the ability to view internships with Western Growers members. The plan allocates a portion of the awarded grant funds to go toward offsetting the cost of a summer internship for a Western Grower member.

“It’s a great way to get students in jobs but also helps the members by offsetting the cost of that intern. It’s almost a 60/40 split,” Peterson said. The link between faculty and growers shows its value in that  community college instructors will have the connections with the students who are the most interested in an internship as well as the WG members who have expressed an interest in mentoring an intern. It’s an all-around mutually beneficial system, as the instructor further benefits from having more of their students in learning-based work.

The Next Gen Ag Workers Program is set to build a new kind of relationship between the agricultural community and California community colleges, and this new connection is built upon a main objective: Help the younger generation find their place and purpose in a career in agriculture and share the variety of complex and exciting opportunities that await them. “The more sharp minds that are in this realm of food production, the better we all are. We’re all better off,” Waite said.

The beginning of the Spring 2023 semester is more than just the start of new classes and newly-acquired knowledge, it’s the ribbon-cutting to a clear-cut path toward the open door of the agricultural community in California. The curriculum is much more than the sum of its parts. It’s the message to those already living in agricultural communities—and who may have family contributing to these farms—that they are wanted within the ranks of these organizations. An enriching and challenging career awaits them, and they’ll have the support to get there.

If you are interested in providing an internship opportunity, please contact Carrie Peterson at (209) 602-4288.