Now Rodriguez and de Leon Siantz are putting together education and training proposals aimed at transforming farm work into a high-tech, high-skills occupation.
Tomorrow’s farmworkers could spend their time repairing machinery, analyzing data or debugging code from a robot. Tasks like those are going to need a wide range of skills and training, from certificate programs to graduate degrees.
“Without a transformation of the farm labor workforce, we are going to see massive displacement of farmworkers and their families,” Rodriguez said. “We have to make this a win-win for farmers, workers, their children as well as for consumers.”
Rodriguez and de Leon Siantz foresee a pipeline that includes middle and high schools, community colleges and universities that provides training for different levels of ability and attainment.
De Leon Siantz has studied the successes and problems of farmworkers and their children in the Central Valley: What keeps the kids in school, what makes them drop out. Creating a new agriculture workforce means engaging with the community, she said.
“We need to reach parents and kids, and help them visualize how their big dreams can be implemented,” de Leon Siantz said.
De Leon Siantz hopes to partner with the national 4-H organization to develop new programs for K12 schools – and which connect to a pipeline of community college, extension, undergraduate and graduate programs that can work for students at every level of ability.
“We have to think in broad ways about working with communities to make broad changes,” de la Torre said. “These communities are very aware of their self-interest, and they are aware when a program is not of benefit to them. If you meaningfully include people in the discussion, you will be far more successful.”
With a long track record in agricultural innovation, UC Davis is naturally well-positioned to invent the future of farming, from crop improvement to robotics. But more significantly, the campus culture of collaboration and cross-disciplinary work can bring a diverse group of people – biologists, engineers, educators, sociologists – to make a transformational shift in agriculture that benefits industry, consumers and communities.
The future of farm work is not about picking but about managing technology. Through the Smart Farm Initiative, Slaughter and colleagues hope not only to invent the technology, but develop the training and career paths that will open up new opportunities in agriculture.
“What better place to train them than UC Davis?” Slaughter said.