Led by Hartnell College, the project is funded by a five-year, $9.5 million grant from the USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture's NEXTGEN initiative. Other partner institutions include Imperial Valley College and California State University Monterey Bay (CSUMB).
Titled "Learning to Lead: Career Pathways Supporting US Leafy Green Production," the project is aimed at advancing equity in high-skill agriculture occupations for educationally disadvantaged, low-income, and Latinx residents while also supplementing America's aging agricultural workforce.
These goals align with the USDA's primary NEXTGEN program goal to engage, recruit, retain, train, and support students to help build and sustain the next generation of the food and agriculture workforce, including the future USDA workforce.
Tanya Hodges, the Regional Academic Programs Director for UA Yuma said, "With lots of workers in the industry getting ready to retire and with a shortage of new workers flowing in, the goal is to attract and guide students through the educational pathway that sparks their interest in agricultural careers."
"As long as people need to eat, agriculture remains hugely important. If people stop entering the agricultural workforce, it presents an issue: Where will our food come from?" Hodges said.
Between the months of October and April, 90% of the US and Canada's leafy greens and other vegetables are grown in the desert regions of Yuma, AZ, and Imperial Valley, CA. Approximately 170 million servings of lettuce are produced every day in Yuma from November to April.
To build and sustain the future food and agricultural sciences workforce and continue supplying the nation with year-round leafy greens, the four institutions will expand upon existing student support and career development programs for students pursuing agriculture degrees, such as bachelor's degrees in Agricultural Systems Management, Sustainable Plant Systems, and BioSystems Engineering, all of which are offered at UA Yuma.
All four institutions will implement a guided pathway approach in their programs, ensuring that students receive clear and comprehensive information on navigating their educational journeys by eliminating unnecessary coursework, reducing time-to-transfer, and expediting degree completion.
Each of the project's partner institutions is the Department of Education-designated Hispanic-Serving-Institutions (HSI), with 80% of UA Yuma's students being first-generation Hispanic students. Hartnell College is the only community college with an HSI designation to lead a NEXTGEN collaborative grant.
The four partner institutions are located in two of the nation's most productive agricultural regions: the 1,000-square-mile Salinas Valley, the 500-square-mile Imperial Valley, and the 280-square-mile Yuma County agricultural region.
Hartnell College and CSUMB, in the Salinas Valley of California, have their growing season in the summer, while Imperial Valley and Yuma's growing season is in the winter. Due to the sister growing seasons, the grant partners have had a long-lasting relationship of migratory education—with students going to the Salinas Valley in the summer and to Yuma in the winter—as well as deep cultural and economic ties before this grant was awarded.
"Our demographics, agriculture, business models, ag-technology, and training are all very similar," said Hodges. "This makes us great partners and great candidates for this grant."
"The Learning to Lead USDA NEXTGEN grant award will help reduce barriers to success for students in these regions," said Hodges. "UA Yuma is very thankful for the award and partnership with Hartnell and Imperial Valley College and looks forward to the partnership objective of building a diverse pipeline of skilled and educated talent by engaging college students in experiential learning, career preparation, leadership development, and college success activities."