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October 31, 2016

WG Careers in Ag Program Connects Community Colleges Students to Ag Workforce

Enthusiasm and excitement radiated from 14 community college students as they toured agricultural operations throughout the Central Valley, learning about the jobs they had only heard about in textbooks.

On September 23, 2016, Western Growers officially expanded its Careers in Ag program to serve California community colleges.  The program, which has only been in commission since June, was originally created to encourage college students from the California State University and University of California to pursue science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) careers within the agricultural industry.  The program has advanced and is now offering community college students the opportunity to learn about the various careers available in ag by connecting with professionals in the field.

Agribusiness and plant science students from Reedley College, College of the Sequoias and West Hills College took their education to the field when they participated in a full-day tour of growers, shippers, processors and related industry suppliers.  Hoping to use their skills and talents garnered from the classroom to give back to the communities that have raised them, these 14 students were thrilled to meet leaders from local ag operations and connect with the companies that make a difference in the Central Valley region and beyond.

The day kicked off at HMC Farms, where Harold McClarty introduced the students to his team to learn about the job skills required to pursue the many career opportunities available in the industry.  The students toured the Kingsburg facility and heard from professionals specializing in a range of jobs, from sales/marketing and business management to grape production and food safety.  The McClarty team also touched on how the increase in regulations—such as the passage of the ag overtime law and the latest Food and Drug Administration Food Safety Modernization Act rules—has created new jobs, including an on-site lawyer who specializes in agriculture.

After leaving the McClarty operations, students headed to Agri-Valley Irrigation, Inc. to learn about the diversity of positions within this large irrigation services provider.  Larry Rompal, CEO, and Jeff Tuel, president, alleviated any fears students might have about coming into a new company and not knowing the job right off the bat.  Agri-Valley makes it a priority to hire interns and train employees, as well as guide them on how to advance in the company.  Students had the opportunity to meet with Oscar Cruz, who was already leading the field operations in his 20s.  He spoke about how he did his “homework,” took the time to learn about the product and processes and applied gumption to everything he did.  Students learned how much hard work goes into making a company as successful as Agri-Valley, and left the tour knowing that working in agriculture is rewarding but not your regular 8-to-5 job.

The caravan of students stopped at Woolf Farming and Processing to learn more about the business of production and processing.  Paul Fanelli, director of human resources and risk management, gave students insight into growing and harvesting crops such as almonds and tomatoes and then converting them into byproducts.  Students also had the opportunity to hear what employers desire when hiring interns or employees.  “When you have a degree, it lets us know that you have long-term goals and discipline,” said Fanelli.  “That’s what employers look for.  That’s what we look for.”

The last stop in Fresno was at J.R. Simplot Company where students engaged in a Q&A session with a diverse panel of soil, seed and plant specialists.  Rich Bernier, the Water Logic Services lead, started the session off by highlighting the vast array of career opportunities J.R. Simplot offers throughout its many operations around the world.  Students were then introduced to an agronomist, seed manager and two technical service representatives to hear about their latest projects and their favorite aspects about their job.  A number of students on the tour are studying to be certified crop advisers (CCA) and certified professional agronomists (CPA) and took this opportunity to ask about the steps to becoming a CCA and CPA and tips for success.

“I learned more about PCAs, but was also introduced to new careers paths,” said Brent Skaggs, an agricultural science & technology major at West Hills College, about his time at Simplot.

The tour wrapped up in Orange Cove at Mulholland Citrus, where Tom Mulholland and his daughter, Heather, gave students a tour of their nursery and insectary.  The Mulhollands walked students through the nursery process, highlighting the importance of rootstock verification, cone development and nutrition chemistry.  The tour ended with an impressive tour of the insectary, where Tom told students the story about how and why he started his insectary program.  In an effort to help reduce the amount of chemicals and pesticides used in the orchard, he raises millions of beneficial insects (Aphytis menlinus) to protect citrus trees from the California red scale pest.  Hearing from two generations of the Mulholland family and getting their boots dirty in the insectary and nursery was the perfect end to an insightful day.

“This tour was one of the most rewarding, well-spent times in my college career,” said Callie Bassett, an agribusiness major from College of the Sequoias.  “It not only informed me but motivated me to continue my education in ag.”

In addition to introducing students to the multitude of career options in ag, the Careers in Ag program also aims to bring bright and enthusiastic minds to our members to help fill their future workforce needs.  As the program develops, Western Growers plans to reach out to members to identify job openings and facilitate career placement between graduating students and member companies.

This is the first of many regional tours for the Careers in Ag program for community colleges.  If any member companies are interested in hosting a tour or have internship/career opportunities, please contact Stephanie Thara at (949) 885-2256.