A new agricultural initiative for this region promises to revolutionize how workers learn the skills they need to pursue rewarding careers in the industry and embrace emerging technologies for sustainability.
Merced College is expected to be at the center of the Agrifood Technology and Engineering Collaborative (AgTEC) that will leverage and unite the workforce development programs of seven community colleges in the northern valley from Merced to Coalinga, along with contributions from small farmers and multinational companies.
Goals of the program include the training and upskilling of 8,400 job-ready workers within four years, a 60 percent growth in wages for agricultural workers, and a total investment of $50 million toward workforce development.
Merced College President Chris Vitelli described AgTEC as a “one-of-a-kind, innovative, just-in-time and transformative workforce development training program that has been years in the making.”
“We know here in the Central Valley that we feed the world, and those who are helping feed the world are the ones who are suffering the most,” Vitelli said during a press conference Tuesday. “We need to contribute to the workforce, the incumbent workers that are going to lose their jobs because of automation in the fields, and we need to give them the upskills they need to continue to be society-ready individuals that can contribute to the ag industry.”
A $15 million investment from the state, made possible through efforts by Sen. Anna Caballero, will help fund AgTEC, along with another $27 million heading to Merced College as the AgTEC project lead in the Central Valley Community Foundation’s (CVCF) broader “Fresno-Merced Future of Food (F3) Innovation Initiative. Last week, that “F3” initiative won a whopping $65 million award from the Biden Administration’s Build Back Better Regional Challenge.
According to information from Merced College, “F3 seeks to drive both economic growth and equity, spurring inclusive innovation and commercialization while building a seamless talent development pipeline and catalyzing local market growth of the small-scale farm and food industry.”
Ashley Swearengin, the CEO of the Community Foundation, was described as the visionary behind the F3 initiative. Times readers may recognize the Swearengin name because she has also served as the former mayor of Fresno.
“If we are today having to import technology from France, Italy and Chile to produce food sustainably in the U.S., why are we not inventing that technology in the valley?” she asked during the press conference. “The greatest deposit of Class 1 soil anywhere in the world exists in these five counties. Our communities pay the price to grow the food, we ought to reap the benefit of inventing new technology that enables that to be done in a sustainable way. And it enables us to diversify away from just the production side of the food value chain, and actually create higher value jobs that will benefit the people of our very communities… We know that we cannot keep doing what we are doing in this valley. We are already hemorrhaging. We are already at the brink of unsustainability. That’s a problem we must solve for future generations.”
The AgTEC joint regional training program is expected to have the capacity to double the annual ag-tech workforce pipeline. New training will incorporate competency-based education (CBE) — which awards credit for demonstrating needed competencies, rather than mandating redundant traditional coursework — leading to a regional, industry-recognized “applied agriculture systems certificate” with stackable credentials.
Tuesday’s announcement took place on the Merced College campus and just a short distance from the brand-new Raj Kahlon Agriculture and Industrial Technology Complex, a state-of-the-art, 29,000-square-foot facility that will provide an innovative space for collaboration, including the AgTEC program. A ribbon cutting for the building is scheduled for noon on Thursday, Sept. 15.
President Vitelli said Merced College is honored to receive the new funding allocation, given its long track record of supporting agriculture and local ag students.
“At Merced College, we are always looking to the future and envisioning new and innovative ways to serve and support our students, while also contributing to the success and growth of our region,” Vitelli said. “We could not be more proud or more excited to be a part of the AgTEC initiative, and to provide this incredible new facility to benefit our students, educators and industry partners.”