The Farms, Food, Future Initiative celebrated its first anniversary with an All Gears meeting on Dec. 5 at Fresno State University. This meeting was not just a commemoration, but a forward-looking forum, addressing the vital components of agrifood technology and workforce development. The gathering brought together key stakeholders from across the initiative’s three gears— F3Local, F3Innovate and F3AgTEC Workforce Development—to discuss progress and strategize for the coming year.
The Food, Farms, Future Initiative, or F3, is a program focused on revitalizing California’s Central Valley economy through agrifood tech innovation. A recipient of a Build Back Better Regional Challenge grant by the Economic Development Administration, F3 aims to develop and commercialize climate-adaptive food production solutions, thereby creating high-quality jobs across various skill levels. F3’s approach not only drives economic growth and equity but also actively engages small farmers and entrepreneurs, constructs a seamless talent development pipeline, and catalyzes local market growth in the small-scale farm and food industry.
“As we reflect on the first year of F3, I’m deeply inspired by the strides we’ve made,” said Ashley Swearengin, President and CEO of the Central Valley Community Foundation. “Our journey has been about more than just technological advancements; it’s about ensuring that these innovations are in harmony with the needs and skills of our diverse workforce, from those in year-round positions to seasonal workers. This initiative represents a concerted, collaborative effort to bring tangible, positive change to the Central Valley, blending tradition with innovation for a sustainable and equitable agricultural future.”
Milestones in Local Farm and Food Innovation
Helle Petersen, Regional Director of Local Farm and Food Innovation, spoke on the progress made on the F3Local gear, led by UC ANR, which addresses the economic and technological challenges faced by small-to-large scale farmers and food entrepreneurs in California’s Central Valley. Key accomplishments include:
- Empowering Small BIPOC Farmers: A remarkable $433,000 worth of produce was sold by small Black, Indigenous, people of color (BIPOC) farmers, 44% above the year-one goal, with a third of these sales within the F3 Region. Fresno BIPOC Produce, involving over 200 farmers, played a pivotal role, including bridging connections to Merced Community College’s student food pantry.
- Innovation and Technology Support: The Small Farm Tech Innovation Challenge saw an impressive 43 entries, with tailored one-on-one technical support provided to farmers.
- Food Recovery Efforts: Approximately 1.4 million pounds of food were distributed to 28,000 residents in Fresno, with the St Rest + Food to Share Hub project being a cornerstone.
- Small Farm Tech Expo: The Kearney Agricultural Research & Extension Center hosted the expo, attracting over 200 attendees and showcasing more than 20 technologies for small farms.
Commercialization support to agtech startups
Gabe Youtsey, UC ANR chief innovation officer and founder of the VINE, provided an update on the contributions of the VINE, which is a critical partner for both the F3Local and F3 Innovate. Youtsey discussed how the VINE was helping to identify, commercialize and scale agricultural, food and biotech innovations, particularly in the complex domains of agriculture and food technology, through its various programs and events. Notable achievements included:
- Nurturing ventures from research to market: Guided four companies from research to venture by a team of industry specialists and UC experts through The VINE Studio program.
- Facilitating industry engagement and validation: Accepted 20 companies into the VINE VIP program, ensuring industry engagement and field validation.
- Fostering student innovation in agriculture: launched the inaugural Farm Robotics Challenge, where 150 students from 12 universities competed to develop robotic solutions to address real agricultural challenges.
- A global platform for agricultural robotics: Co-hosted the second annual FIRA USA in Salinas, attracting over 1,700 participants from 30 countries to explore the future of agriculture with a focus on robotics and automation.
Shaping education for agriculture
Karen Aceves, who leads F3AgTEC Workforce Development, spoke about the initiative’s broader role in supporting small enterprises. Aceves highlighted the collaborative effort between industry, educators, and students in agriculture, emphasizing the importance of diverse participation.
A key achievement of the initiative over the course of the last year was the collection of over 12,000 surveys from farmworkers, the largest survey of its kind. This survey is a cornerstone of the F3AgTEC Workforce Development initiative, offering vital insights into the aspirations, educational backgrounds, and needs of farmworkers. These findings have been instrumental in shaping the AgGED certificate program, ensuring that it is tailored to the real-life requirements and ambitions of those at the heart of agriculture.
This data-driven approach exemplifies a commitment to making educational offerings in agriculture more relevant and accessible, aligning with the evolving needs of the sector and empowering those who form its backbone.
Government’s role in economic development and inclusivity
The meeting also featured remarks from Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Economic Development, Alejandra Castillo, who underscored the importance of economic development and inclusivity. She discussed the role of government as a catalyst rather than a complete solution, and acknowledged the transformative period the U.S. is undergoing with substantial federal investments in various sectors, including agriculture. She emphasized the importance of inclusivity in these efforts, ensuring that economic growth encompasses all communities and industry types. The dialogue included perspectives on the challenges and evolution of work in academia and community colleges, emphasizing the difficulty of implementing change within established institutions and celebrating the efforts of those pushing through these barriers.
Discussions also touched on various initiatives and projects, highlighting the integration of technology in agriculture and the crucial role of innovation in the region’s economic and societal progress. There was a focus on ensuring that technological advances do not lead to displacement, but rather inclusive development where everyone has a seat at the table.
The meeting concluded with an open forum for questions and a showcase of research projects, emphasizing the collective effort and interdisciplinary collaboration that the F3 initiative embodies. As it enters its second year, F3 remains committed to advancing agrifood technology and workforce development in the Central Valley, with a focus on inclusive and sustainable growth.