Of all the industries that are increasingly reliant on emerging technologies, none is more fundamental than agriculture. The United Nations estimates that by 2050, the world will need to produce 70% more food to feed a population that is expected to expand by 2.3 billion people. In the United States, the challenge is magnified by a labor shortage that already leaves millions of dollars worth of planted acreage unharvested.
“As we face chronic and worsening labor shortages, the rapid development and deployment of agriculture technology is our best hope to preserve agricultural economies,” says Dave Puglia, president and CEO of Western Growers (WG), an alliance that represents local and regional family farmers in California, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico.
This push for automation, however, has exposed a related challenge: In addition to the shortage of traditional farmworkers, there’s a growing need for workers with the skillsets necessary to manage emerging ag tech innovations.
“Just as we need AgTech startups and technology experts to help us automate key functions such as harvesting, weeding and thinning,” says Puglia, “we also will need trained and creative people to work on our farms and in our facilities who are adept in everything from agriculture technology and agronomy to data analytics and technology integration.”
Western Growers’ members provide more than half of all of the nation’s fresh fruits, vegetables and nuts, including nearly half of America’s fresh organic produce. In response to its members’ workforce needs, WG is engaged in a multi-pronged effort to expose young learners to the myriad possibilities offered by careers in agriculture technology. The AgTech Workforce Readiness Campaign, launched in 2017, is helping to blaze a path for the AgTech force of the future. It includes five separate programs that are helping to bolster the AgTech workforce in the nation’s most prolific farming belt.
Careers in Ag is a careers pathway program that encourages college students to pursue science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) within the agricultural industry. Students embark on three-day tours of agricultural and technology operations in Monterey County, the Central Valley, and the Coachella and Imperial valleys in California and in Yuma, 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.
“It’s great to have everybody out here and show them around and open their eyes to what’s available out here on the ranch,” says Brian Antle, president of PlantTape USA in Salinas, California, which has developed an automated crop transplanting system. “It’s not all tractors and plows out here. It’s a lot of computers and sensors and all the new technology that comes to the ranch.”
In August 2021, WG held its inaugural AgTechX Ed in conjunction with the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA). The initiative brings together universities and colleges, farming and agricultural partners and technology companies across California to help transition the agriculture workforce to master developing agricultural technologies.
“As the development of technology rapidly accelerates, initiatives such as AgTechX Ed lay the foundation for new tech-based education training platforms that will build an adequately trained workforce,” says Karen Ross, CDFA Secretary.
WG is working with partners at the University of California on the NextGen Curriculum to address the need for agriculture worker education by developing courses of study that can be leveraged across campuses in the University of California, California State University and California Community College systems to provide the training needed for AgTech expertise for the next-generation workforce. The curriculum is to launch in 2022.
High school and middle school students in rural areas taking part in the Junior AgSharks are exposed to pitches from AgTech startups and vet their technologies, as well as learn about the latest technologies by interacting with leaders in the agriculture industry and venture capitalist space.
Home for the Holidays is a professional mixer where college students returning to the Salinas Valley during the winter break are invited to an exclusive meet-and-greet with industry leaders and companies. In December 2020, some 50 university students took part in a virtual seminar with Elizabeth Fastiggi, worldwide business development lead for the Agriculture vertical at Amazon Web Services. Also included were representatives of startups AgTools, Augean Robotics, Full Harvest, GeoVisual Analytics, HeavyConnect, iFoodDecisionSciences, Inteligistics, iTradeNetwork, Sapphire Automation, Tailwater Systems and Trace Genomics.