New agriculture major produces student growth to benefit the Salad Bowl

Sitting on the edge of California, Monterey County is kissed by breezes of coastal mist and grounded with enriched soil, thus establishing the area as a magnamious epicenter for agricultural production. Families have migrated to the county for many years to take on farming jobs, raising their children in what is known to be the “Salad Bowl” of the World. After years of planning, California State University, Monterey Bay (CSUMB) developed the Agricultural Plant and Soil Sciences major (APGS) in order to create more growth opportunities for local students interested in the agricultural industry, and students and teachers alike are pleased to see the program begin. 

“I think this program is long overdue, especially because local students usually go to agriculture schools such as Fresno State, Cal Poly and UC Davis, so I think it’s going to be very beneficial not only to the students but to the community as well,” said Julissa Hernandez, who was the first  student to enroll in APGS courses in Spring 2020.

Dr. Elizabeth Mosqueda invited Hernandez to join the major after learning about her interest in agriculture through a local scholarship committee. Mosqueda’s family immigrated to the Salinas Valley as farmworkers, instilling her with an interest in agriculture from a young age. Mosqueda attended Fresno State to earn her bachelor’s and master’s degree in plant science as CSUMB did not offer those degrees at the time, then attended the University of Wyoming to receive her PhD. After a journey far from home, she’s happy to be working as the Bob & Sue Johnson Assistant Professor of Crop Management.

“It’s exciting to be back and be working in my local community especially in this agriculture industry because it’s so dynamic and interesting here,” Mosqueda said.

Her position was fully funded by a generous donation from Bob Johnson, a retired farmer who worked in the Salinas Valley that now lives in Pacific Grove. When building the program, Mosqueda and her colleagues ensured transfer students residing in Monterey County would have a smooth transition from Harntell, Monterey Peninsula College or other common CSUMB transfer schools into APGS. Many of what Mosqueda calls “the first cohort” of students have part-time or full-time positions within the agriculture industry already, yet are so passionate about the subject that they desire more in-depth knowledge about it. 

“I think that shows the need overall for a program such as this one,” she said. “The agriculture industry is one of the most important industries economically as well as socially to the surrounding CSUMB region, and that of course that extends to our students and their families.”

APGS was listed for the first time in the Fall 2020 course catalog, but took several years to come into fruition. Dean of CSUMB’s College of Science Andrew Lawson said the major required permission to plan paperwork and a program proposal, each process taking a year to complete and receive approval by the CSU Chancellor’s office. As a younger university, CSUMB had to wait for an opportunity to get an agriculture specialization up and running, but the preparation for APGS was worth its due time as interested students need training specific to the Salinas and Pajaro Valley.

Agriculture in Monterey County differs from other regions of the state. “We grow the majority of all of these leafy greens and a lot of vegetables are grown here, and that’s quite different than some of the crops that are grown in the Central Valley,” Lawson said.

As students prepare to run the agricultural businesses in Monterey County, Mosqueda said they will partake in “economic sustainability and community-driven change,” fueling not only their futures, but also the families they will feed as an outcome of their hard work. 

Some offered APGS classes include plant physiology, weed science and biotechnology and agriculture. Most classes consist of the same 14 students, making group projects and discussions all the more comfortable and bonding with professors more simple. Hernandez noted that UROC offers space for agricultural research, which is great for dedicated APGS students.

Hernandez said biotechnology, led by professor JP Dundore-Arias, is her favorite course this semester and that he has been an excellent model for students. “[Biotechnology] is really changing agriculture … we do have a labor shortage in California and these technologies,” automated weeders, for example, save farmers time and money. “To see how much technology has evolved in just these past years is really amazing and I’m learning so much in that class, things I didn’t even know about,” Hernandez said.

Dundore-Arias started working as the assistant professor of plant pathology at CSUMB after focusing many years of study on agriculture in Costa Rica and Minnesota. As biotechnology and agriculture is a new course, Dundore-Arias created all the materials for lesson plans and coursework, including a project where students developed a business plan for a hypothetical agriculture company who researches and sells biotechnology resources as if they were on an episode of “Shark Tank.”

Students proposed groundbreaking biotech inventions such as a Central Coast-originating, plant-based clothes to diminish waste, robots to help harvest strawberries and using fluorescent genes to signify to a weed-pulling tractor with cameras what reads as healthy lettuce versus unwanted weeds. Although he did not force students to list themselves as managers of their proposed businesses, he said “it allowed them to see themselves in upper management positions” as many presented themselves as leaders of those companies.

“I asked [students] to come up with a design of how their company would be managed … I never said ‘you have to be the boss,’ but all of them put themselves as CEOs or BPs of their companies,” said Dundore-Arias. “They did that, I did not ask them, so I hope they can see themselves in those positions … because students from underrepresented minorities and first generation students would not necessarily” enlist themselves in those positions. 

According to Lawson, CSUMB is now the sixth university to offer an agriculture degree out of the 23 CSU’s. This semester, APGS classes consist of the same cohort, filled with local students yearning to learn more about the farming land around them. But this major is just as focused on obtaining new students as it is on producing a quality program, if not more. 

“We certainly hope it grows as quickly as it can and we’re going to make every effort to make sure it’s a really high quality program so that word-of-mouth spreads and we become known as the place in California to focus on fruit and vegetable crops” specific to the county, Lawson said. “(The major) aligns with the values of CSUMB and the region and I hope young people looking for careers in agriculture can think about that and feel really good about a career where they’re producing healthy fruits and vegetables – really for the nation.” 

Hernandez is grateful for the projects and lessons she’s experienced so far within the APGS major. “It gives us more opportunities to give us that hands-on experience” which students probably wouldn’t get anywhere else “especially because we’re local there’s also different job opportunities around the region which is really beneficial for all of us.” She also highlighted the importance of having a tight-nit cohort.

“How we started, we’re going to be ending,” said Hernanadez. 

To learn more about the APGS program and it’s research, contact Dr. Elizabeth Mosqueda at [email protected]

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