Nine Cal Poly Pomona students got a glimpse of agriculture’s high-tech future during a three-day trip through Northern California and the Salinas Valley in mid-June.
The students were part of a cohort in a collaborative project known as the Careers in Ag Pathways Pilot Program. They included students from the colleges of Agriculture, Engineering, and Science. Cal Poly Pomona co-sponsored the program along with Western Growers and UC Davis, which also sent a group of students.
“We wanted to introduce students to educational pathways that lead to STEM careers in agriculture,” says Lisa Kessler, associate dean of the College of Agriculture, who accompanied the students on the trip.
The program was advertised with other STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics)-related colleges at Cal Poly Pomona, and students applied to participate in the program.
“I decided to go because I thought it would be interesting to learn how our vegetables and fruits are grown in the commercial setting,” says Natasha Tajdin, a third-year food and nutrition student. “I also wanted to see how I could tie my nutrition background to agriculture, as it is a growing industry.”
The Cal Poly Pomona students flew to Sacramento on the first day of the trip where they took a bus and joined up with the UC Davis students. The two universities were included to instill collaboration, allow students to meet future colleagues, and share ideas from different geographic perspectives, Kessler says.
The themes of the first day were crop science, breeding, and genetics. The students visited a Seminis Inc. facility in nearby Woodland. Seminis is the largest developer, grower, and marketer of fruit and vegetable seeds in the world.
From there, it was off to the Salinas area, which is often referred to as the “salad bowl of the world,” and is responsible for growing about 70 percent of the nation’s lettuce and is a hub of agricultural innovation.
The group traveled to California Giant Berry Farms in Watsonville. California Giant is one of the nation’s largest strawberry companies and provides its customers with strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries year-round.
At dinner, they heard guest speaker Beau Schoch, an ag. engineer from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service’s center in Salinas.
Derek Harmon-Wong, a fourth-year plant science student, was particularly interested in hearing Schoch speak about jobs in soil conservation and how soil scientists go about solving problems.
“I chose plant science, because I want to learn about soil and how it works,” he says. “It has always interested me how the soil can support life.”
The next day, they visited Ocean Mist Farms’ headquarters in Castroville, where they learned about soil science and nutrient management. The family-owned company is the largest grower of fresh artichokes in North America.
The next stop was SmartWash Solutions in Salinas. SmartWash is a patented food wash enhancer that boosts the effectiveness of standard chlorine-based wash systems for food safety. The goal of SmartWash is to consistently remove pathogens and eliminate E. coli and salmonella from food products.
In the afternoon, they traveled to Gonzales to visit Ramsay Highlander, which is known as the world’s largest manufacturer of self-propelled harvesting aids, to learn more about engineering and robotics.
Then they visited GreenGate Fresh in Salinas, where they discussed innovation and technology. The company sells lettuce, cabbage, and other salad blends to the foodservice industry.
The guest speaker for dinner that evening was Richard Smith, a vegetable crops and weed science farm advisor from UC Cooperative Extension, Monterey County.
On the last day, the students ended their trip with more discussions about innovation and technology with visits in Salinas to Tanimura & Antle, one of the largest independent lettuce growers in the United States, and Western Growers Center for Innovation and Technology, an organization that brings entrepreneurs and farmers together to devise creative solutions to ag. problems.
The trip opened the students’ eyes to opportunities and possibilities.
“It made me realize that this is a big industry that is growing, and there are many different things we can do with an agriculture background,” Tajdin says. “I am looking to work in the dietetics field and integrate it with agriculture.”
Charizma Mendoza, a fourth-year agribusiness and food industry management student, says the most interesting part of the trip was seeing what companies were doing to make farming more cost and labor efficient.
“Seeing first-hand how labor intensive agriculture is — and the difficulties that some companies face when trying to better the living conditions for their employees — it has inspired me to focus my attention on the political aspects of agriculture,” she says.
If she is able to continue her education after earning her bachelor’s degree, Mendoza says she wants to become a lawyer and fight for soil conservation, water conservation, and better working conditions for agricultural workers.