Can Fresno bridge economic divisions? Millions from California drive black companies, agricultural technology

“If you want to start a business and you don’t know where to start and you just need someone to give you the tools to get started, making big bets all the time,” Newlin said.

Porter said each Betting Big cohort follows a core curriculum designed for minority-owned companies, but also focuses on a variety of topics or business resources that meet the needs and interests of participants. For example, while Newlin found value in the knowledge and resources of the program, a cohort of black men trained in mastering the business language and terminology for networking or showcasing their companies.

“They understand they’re being pushed out of certain rooms,” Porter said of the men. “They want to educate themselves so they don’t feel like they don’t belong.”

Professions of the future in agriculture

Another goal of the DRIVE project that shows progress is the effort to prepare tomorrow’s farmers and farm workers for technological advances and to train current farm workers to perform better-paying jobs.

DRIVE’s Fresno-Merced Future of Food Innovation Coalition (or F3) initiative received A $65 million grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration’s Build Back Better Regional Challenge in September 2022. It will train workers in the skills needed to perform agricultural technical work, help smallholders access technology, and strengthen the local food system.

The state also donated $15 million to agro-food technology and engineering collaborations (or AgTEC)the DRIVE program, which will help Central Valley local schools train 8,400 future farm workers in the science and technology they will need to continue innovating.

“One of the challenges is that we have an aging workforce and we’re trying to develop programs that will encourage younger generations to seek jobs in agricultural technology,” said Reza Ehsani, a professor of engineering at UC Merced. “We want them to be excited to show them that, in fact, agriculture can be really tech-savvy.”

The effort attracted other partners and funding.

Many of California’s equipment companies that are at the forefront of agricultural technology innovation are struggling to recruit Central Valley workers with basic science, math and technology backgrounds, said Walt Duflock, vice president of innovation for the Western Growers Association.

He said internships can only go up to a certain point; “We think the real-world experience is important.”

The Western Growers Association also received a grant of $750,000 from the state department of agriculture to help develop a training program in the field of agricultural technology at colleges and universities across California. The association connects its members with professors such as Terry Brase, director of the Farm of the Future program at West Hills Community College in Coalinga, to ensure students are prepared to work on the same equipment that farms use.

Agricultural science

Meanwhile, a grant of nearly $1 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture is funding efforts at two colleges in the Central Valley, West Hills, and the Ehsani program at UC Merced. It will support the creation of “AgSTEM” (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) kits by universities for over 500 primary, middle and high school students.

Ultimately, these kits will be used in classrooms or during field trips. For example, fourth graders will test soil moisture sensors on plants in the classroom, and high school students will learn how to manage water flow and pressure using an irrigation simulator.

“You know, farming is about science,” he said brown. “All these basics are important.”

The idea, experts say, is that these students will consider farming as a possible STEM career path and be better prepared for the rigorous college coursework that professors like Brase and Ehsani are developing to meet the needs of the local workforce.

The professors said they hoped the students would get well-paying jobs in the Central Valley region where they grew up or attended college, like agricultural technician Adrian Jenkins. He moved to the Central Valley from Florida to play football at Reedley College but stayed to study agriculture.

After taking classes at West Hills, Jenkins joined the staff as an agricultural technician, general laborer, and academic advisor, helping with STEM programs and “farm camps” for local students. He has since left college to find a new job using his experience in agricultural technology.

“Agriculture sparked my interest,” Jenkins said in March. “It’s a useful activity that changes the world.”

Editor’s Note: The James Irvine Foundation, which funds the Fresno DRIVE Central Valley Community Foundation initiative, also funds CalMatters.

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