Turning Today’s STEM Students into Tomorrow’s Ag Extraordinaires

By Stephanie Metzinger A skilled labor deficit is plaguing the nation’s agriculture industry as more growers are turning to mechanization and digitization to bolster operations on the farm. There are an average of 60,000 openings for high-skill, ag-related jobs annually but only 35,000 graduates to fill them, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. These jobs typically require a bachelor’s degree or higher with a STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) curriculum extremely valuable. They include positions in plant and food science, water resources, engineering and precision agriculture. In fact, STEM skills are a necessity for 27 percent of new ag jobs. “Agriculture is no longer just cows and plows,” said Tom Nassif, president and CEO at Western Growers (WG).” As innovation and technological development within our industry continues to boom, hundreds of new job categories in science, technology, engineering and math-related fields are being created annually.” The blitz of new STEM jobs available in ag will continue to soar in the coming years as American agricultural production must significantly ramp up to meet the needs of a growing population. The United Nations recently reported that world’s population is expected to increase by two billion persons in the next 30 years, from 7.7 billion currently to 9.7 billion in 2050. Coupled with other factors including land use issue, this means that food production efficiency needs to increase by as much as 70 percent. Achieving this dramatic increase in global food production requires a systemic transformation in the way we cultivate our food. That is where technology comes in. The future of ag depends

on technology and the highly-skilled workers who can effectively and efficiently operate these new programs and machines. Careers in Ag Program Expands to Place More Students in Jobs In an effort to fill the ag workforce gap, Western Growers launched a Careers in Ag Program in 2016 to encourage college students to pursue STEM careers within the ag industry. The students, who are all pursuing STEM-related degrees, embark on a three-day journey to tour ag operations throughout California and Arizona. Throughout the tour, they learn about the vast array of STEM jobs available in the industry, meet ag professionals who provide career insight and guidance, and connect with Western Growers members to possibly pursue an internship or job within their operation. The program initially launched with UC Davis and Cal Poly Pomona, but has since expanded to other universities including Cal State L.A., University of Arizona, West Hills College, College of the Sequoias, and Reedley College. This summer, the program hosted its first-ever career trek with Fresno State and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo where 14 total students met with Western Growers members including HMC Farms, Booth Ranches, Anthony Vineyards, Dan Andrews Farms, Wonderful Pistachios & Almonds, Woolf Farming & Processing, Terranova Ranch and Simplot. The scholars also had the opportunity to meet with professionals from the Kern County Farm Bureau and Kern Delta Water District. “This trip was very beneficial for me since I don’t come from an ag background,” said Jackson Mattos, a senior at Fresno State University. Within weeks of participating in the tour, Mattos received an internship with Don Cameron at Terranova Ranch. “Jackson is great,” said Cameron. “We have him working in various tasks here on the ranch, and we are so glad we found him through the Western Growers program. We have had a difficult time finding local talent that is willing to dedicate themselves to learning on farm, hands on. Jackson has proven he is willing to work hard and engage fully here at Terranova Ranch.” Mattos is among the many success stories directly resulting from the Careers in Ag program. In December 2016, Travis Taylor was hired as a production analyst intern with Automated Harvesting/ Taylor Farms after he connected with Chris Rotticci (co-founder of Automated Harvesting) during the tour. Taylor’s internship played a key role in landing a job as farm manager at Blossom Vineyards immediately after he graduated from UC Davis. Tasien Some, an agronomy/agribusiness student at Cal Poly Pomona, was offered an internship at Gowan USA after being introduced to the company during the Careers in Ag trek held in December 2017. During the visit at Gowan, employees from

Fresno State and Cal Poly Pomona students learn about the science behind food safety while having the opportunity to test product.

24   Western Grower & Shipper | www.wga.com   SEPTEMBER | OCTOBER 2019

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