This article was originally published on The Californian
Agriculture has never been known as a sexy sector but this stigma is slowly dissipating. Even consumers who are far removed from the roots of the food they consume have gained a greater appreciation for agriculture sparked in part by the pandemic. Who hasn’t been impacted on some scale whether it be access to fresh produce or experienced the hefty price tag exacerbated further by supply chain woes?
As a result, farming whether it be commercial or backyard gardening has become almost trendy and it is also connected with discussions about climate change. The agtech sector, under the greater umbrella of agriculture, is growing by leaps and bounds as it provides solutions to growers that face rising threats under climate change and the pressure to feed a growing global population.
This certainly translates into opportunity especially when it comes to workforce development and local economy. Ag is already a powerhouse in the Salinas Valley. It is a $9 billion industry that includes the production of 80% of the leafy greens that are consumed in the U.S.
The good news is that higher education is starting to make ag a priority. Policymakers and educators realize that this is not only an opportunity but a necessity. Colleges and universities are beginning to incorporate the skills and knowledge for success in ag and innovation into their programs. Earlier this month CSUMB announced $957,000 in funding from the United States Department of Agriculture to fund ag studies for underrepresented students. The funding will allow more youth to attain a degree in ag-related majors including Agricultural Plant and Soil Services.
That said, there lies an untapped opportunity in introducing food, farming, and innovation into the K-12 educational level. Why not start them young or younger?
Some might argue that the Future Farmers of America or 4-H already serve a role in this area.
In the case of 4-H, while this youth organization with an extensive network across the U.S. has upgraded its programs to include STEM (science technology engineering and math), membership and involvement in the 4-H and similar clubs is optional.
The City of Salinas has made strides in providing training to children and youth. Programs such as Coder DOJO and the MUREP Aerospace Academy held at the Hartnell College Alisal Campus are excellent. DigitalNEST a nonprofit that offers youth 14-24 years old a wide variety of workshops, classes and programs to ready them for career opportunities in tech and innovation has identified agrifoodtech as a leading career opportunity.
There are a new set of skills that agtech requires compared to traditional ag. Here are some examples of how agtech works and what skills might be required.
If you drive past the thousands of acres of farmland in California or in the Midwest this might include a self-driving tractor. If you look up in the sky there might be drones flying above inspecting farmland. Technologies such as blockchain are much more than cryptocurrency. Blockchain is being used by big retailers to track and trace food from field to shelf.
For opportunity to be truly realized ag and innovation need to be baked into the elementary, middle school and high school levels. This is likely to have to be greenlighted at a federal or state level. Learning would include STEM, skills related to innovation, entrepreneurship and even finance and investment. The learning would be held in the classroom and field and also include competitions. How about hosting competitions where students are challenged to work in teams and create an innovation that solves a problem in ag?
Agriculture is much for than tractors and overalls, it is the laboratory, cutting edge innovation, investment and finance, entrepreneurship, and storytelling.
Finally, it creates an opportunity for a more diverse workforce. Agtech requires a new if not extended set of skills and talent that are more diverse than traditional agricultural and often those skills connect to STEM. There is a continued push to get more youth, especially underrepresented youth into STEM including girls and people of color too. It opens job opportunities to segments of the population who traditionally have not been the leaders and key decision-makers in these sectors. In the long run, it keeps youth and talent in the communities they grew up in and affords them a chance to give them and pay it back to those communities.
In my documentary "From Farms to Incubators" that introduced a handful of female founders and leaders in agtech, Rivka Garcia who interned at Salinas agtech company HeavyConnect and is a graduate of Hartnell College and CSUMB’s CSin3 program, said, "I was studying computer science and I did work in ag and I wanted to stay in the area. Everyone that I graduated with has had to leave the Salinas Valley to find a job and I was lucky enough to find one here." Rivka graduated and went on to work at Mann Packing based in Salinas.
In the big picture of looking ahead starting them young is really a win-win for all.
Amy Wu is an award-winning writer for the women’s ag and agtech movement. She was previously a reporter for The Salinas Californian. From Nov. 15 to Nov. 20 Wu will be visiting Salinas. and give a number of readings and talks. For details go to www.farmstoincubators.com/california-book-tour.
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