University of Arizona Yuma senior named a Future Leader in Agriculture by USDA

Alan Cruz is one of only 20 students nationwide to receive the recognition and be invited to the USDA’s Agricultural Outlook Forum.

March 29, 2024

Alan Cruz Yuma Field.jpeg

Alan Cruz, an agricultural systems management major at University of Arizona Yuma, stands in a field of leafy greens.
Alan Cruz, one of 20 students nationwide to be named a Future Leader in Agriculture by the USDA in 2024, plans to continue agricultural work in Yuma after graduation.

Alan Cruz, an agricultural systems management major at University of Arizona Yuma, was surprised not a single student raised their hand when he posed his question to a class of high school students.

“Who wants to work in agriculture when they’re older?”

Cruz, a 27-year-old senior, reflected on his own aspirations when in high school and admits he was not thinking about food production either. He is now though, serving as a role model for his peers and future generations to pursue careers in Yuma’s hallmark industry – agriculture.

“We need more food to feed the world,” said Cruz. “I think it’s important for students from this place to go into these programs.”

Yuma is known as the Winter Salad Bowl because it is the source of approximately 90% of the nation’s domestic leafy greens between November and March. Yuma County is first in Arizona and third in the United States for vegetable production. The University of Arizona maintains multiple facilities like the Yuma Agricultural Center, Cooperative Extension Yuma, and the Yuma Center of Excellence for Desert Agriculture that foster research, innovation and education in the area, along with six degree programs related to agriculture.

It should be obvious that Yuma, touting such an impressive resume, also produces a United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Future Leader in Agriculture. Cruz is one of only 20 undergraduates from across the country to be named to the program, which included an invitation to the department’s annual Agricultural Outlook Forum in Washington, D.C. last month.

Tanya Hodges, director of regional academic programs, praised Cruz as a team player in class and a leader on campus. She said most of her students are first generation who may not realize just how much expertise is accessible all around them in Yuma.

“When you don’t know that, you don’t know what you’re comparing yourself to,” said Hodges. “When you have that opportunity to see and experience, you realize ‘oh my gosh, I’m just as experienced as anyone to do this’.”

Cruz, who was nominated to be a Future Leader by Hodges and Baleshka Brenes, director of agricultural programs, left Washington D.C. with a better sense of self and his career in agriculture. He says his eyes were opened to the larger industry and to the many adjacent support systems and advocacy groups.

“I’m fortunate to say Baleshka and Tanya are my professors,” he said. “All the UArizona Yuma staff have been really supportive, trying to keep me on the right track.”

Keeping Cruz on the right track doesn’t take much these days, as he holds down a paid internship with a local research farm and mentors younger students through the 2+2 Program. It’s been years since a student from Yuma has been named to the Future Leader in Agriculture program, but Cruz’s inclusion is the latest indication of the University’s long and rewarding relationship with the USDA.

“The Future Leaders program really changes students’ perception about the USDA and there are opportunities through true partnership,” said Brenes. “We see that commitment at different levels.”

That commitment from the USDA comes in all forms, including $10M in student-support grants for STEM-based fields or careers in agriculture. Simply put, that eliminates barriers for students to earn their degrees in underserved regions, according to Hodges.

“So many young people would not be able to purse their education,” she said. “We can’t thank them (USDA) enough for all the work and support that they do for our students.”

The USDA understands Yuma’s importance, and so does Cruz. His recent recognition and whirlwind visit with high-ranking leaders in the industry did not pull his focus from home. Growing up surrounded by agriculture, Cruz considers the field as his happy place.

“You feel different, the way you see all the green around you and sometimes a breeze rolls through,” he said. “Why move, especially if agriculture is your thing. This is the place to be.”

Whatever the future holds for this Future Leader in Agriculture, there is no question he will be leading in Yuma.


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