Contemplating the future of Ag: Greater Vision 2021

California State University, Monterey Bay (CSUMB) partnered with the Grower-Shipper Association Foundation to host the 15-year annual Greater Vision event, discussing future changes in the agricultural industry in a series of public forums, with various agriculture representatives, panelists, elected officials and public agencies on Oct. 4. 

Dennis Donohue, Director of Western Growers Center for Innovation & Technology, began the event by introducing CSUMB President Eduardo Ochoa. 

“This series addresses agricultural issues important to agriculture and the agricultural community,” Ochoa said in his opening remarks. “It is designed for the general public, students and industry practitioners.”

Following Ochoa’s statements, a fireside chat between U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Tom Vilsack and Former U.S. Congressman Sam Farr took place. But before the conversation, Donohue informed the audience, made up of more than 400 members, of the USDA’s new Agricultural Research Technology Center, which is under construction in Salinas and made possible by Vilsack and Farr.

Starting the discussion with acknowledgements of Vilsack’s understanding for rural farming and poverty issues within those communities, Farr was eager to share with the audience some of Vilsack’s programs in the USDA and potential career opportunities.

“If we are really serious about climate change, then we have to be serious about converting our extraction economy in rural places and replace it with a circular economy,” Vilsack said. “[The USDA] will help bring that circular economy greater profitability, more jobs and a greater farm income to rural places.”

Speaking on the USDA’s involvement in helping combat poverty for farmworkers, Vilsack broke down different single-family home loans the USDA offers, as well as offering multi-family loans by working with the American Rescue Plan Resources in providing assistance to families residing in apartment complexes. 

“We most recently invested $100 million in helping those that are significantly burdened with rent, where more than 50 percent of their income was going to rent payments,” Vilsack said. “We, essentially, gave them some relief to keep them in those homes.” 

In addition to helping farmworkers maintain their housing through loans and financial relief, the USDA is heavily involved with helping those receive rehabilitation and self-help housing.

Concerns about inadequate broadband services for rural communities were addressed. Supplying farmworker families with reliable broadband increases the profits for farmers by having up-to-date information on markets, and allows children to complete and continue distance-learning education as needed.

“If you have a safe place to live, and you have access to medicine so when you’re sick or, most importantly, you have access to education, you have a good chance,” Farr said. “The USDA is the poverty program for America, it is the innovation for how we sustain this country and the globe.” 

To help keep buying power local and to supply people with healthy, fresh produce, the USDA has been working to allow the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) vouchers to be accepted at farmers markets.

After the fireside chat, Donohue switched gears, turning the event over to Congressman Jimmy Panetta, as he led a panel of USDA representatives to go further in-depth on the programs and positions offered by the USDA.

“I believe it’s our responsibility in Congress, but also as a member of this country, to ensure that we continue to highlight the role of people and communities in our rural areas,” Panetta said. “What they do for all of us, in urban areas and all across the country.” 

Diving deeper into the promising and fruitful acts of the USDA, Panetta described the emergency grant funding for specialty crop producers, totaling in at $100 million, while giving more than $20 million for cost-share assistance to producers that are transitioning to organic farming. 

Panetta works with the House Appropriations Committee to secure funding of more than $450 million in this year’s appropriation bill to fuel agriculture and food research, particularly agriculture pertinent to the Central Coast. 

Sliding into the panel discussion, Panetta began introducing the USDA representatives speaking to the audience. Spiro Stefanou, USDA’s Administrator for Economic Research Service, along with Jesus Mendoza, USDA Regional Administrator for Food & Nutrition Service, and, lastly, Jeff Yasui, Director of USDA’s Risk Management Agency. 

Stefanou’s research focuses on themes of competitiveness, growth and related policy implications. Mendoza oversees 15 nutrition assistance programs, including programs in California. Yasui’s role within the USDA administers and oversees federal crop insurance activities in California and several other Western states. 

“We have a lot of leafy greens-related work, and we put out multiple data products that focus on vegetables,” Stefanou said. “We’ve seen over the last decade production for lettuce is down 20 percent, while imports are up by 19 percent and exports are down.” 

Stefanou examines fruit and tree nut outlook, looking closely at strawberry shipments from California, which have been up 13 percent from the previous year, with California supplying 90 percent of the country’s strawberries. 

Additionally, Stefanou’s team investigates consumer supply and demand, seeing an increase in demand for pork during 2021. 

Mendoza’s team works with Congress to guarantee all SNAP recipients received the full amount allocated during the height of the pandemic, ensuring that all families and children would have stable nutritious food security. 

“Households who were SNAP recipients have the same opportunities, as any other household, to purchase their food online,” Mendoza said. “Especially families who have children, we provided them with the health safety to do so.”

SNAP’s application process was modified to virtual services, allowing people to receive the funds to purchase groceries from the safety of home. The recertification process for receiving the benefits has been extended from a six-month period to 12 months.

Yasui works directly with specialty crop insurance for farmers. California’s vast list of specialty crops range from apples and avocados, to grapes and walnuts. Throughout the USDA’s Whole Farm Policy, policies are determined by reviewing past tax records and farm revenue. Sixty-one percent of the premium is subsidized by the government. 

“We set our rates to break even over the long-term without consideration of the subsidy,” Yasui said. “The subsidy helps you, if you have average losses over the years. It’s a good program, it’s very affordable and flexible.” 

Grapes have seen tremendous devastation caused by the wildfires plaguing California. 

“It wasn’t necessarily the direct burning of the grapes on the vine,” Yasui said. “It was the smoke that infiltrated the skins and tainted the taste of the grapes.” 

The USDA helps producers with the loss of crops from natural disasters, paying out substantial funds to ease the burden of farmers. In 2020, the USDA gave out $235 million in indemnities.

Lorri Koster, President of Grower-Shipper Association Foundation, left the audience with closing remarks. 

“This is our 15-year partnership with CSUMB on Greater Vision,” Koster said. “You can see the USDA has a lot of diverse career opportunities, so we encourage you to look into joining them.” 

Following the fireside chat and panel discussion, CSUMB, Hartnell College and the USDA were hosting career fair breakout rooms for interested candidates. 

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