Ventura County: The STEM of Farming’s Future

 By Sheryl Hamlin

The 2017 Ventura County Ag Summit hosted by the Office of the Ventura County Agricultural Commissioner packed the conference room of the County Office of Education in Camarillo where Masters of Ceremonies Richard and Bonnie Atmore shared a bit of their professional and family lives with the audience, as they announced the guests and speakers. Agriculture Commissioner Gonzales spoke about his life in and about farming and as a member of the UFW at age 28, important as March 31 is Cesar Chavez Day.

Bonne and Richard Atmore speak to the packed audience

Notable guests included Assembly Member Jacqui Irwin, who spoke of her bill to obtain $3,000,000 for the CA Grown program as well as the moniker Ventura county received from the New York Times as “the most beautiful county in the country.” Mary Maranville, founder of SeeAg, was also recognized for her selection to the Top 50 Women in Business by the Pacific Coast Business Times and was featured on the cover.

Larry Yee: Big Ideas

Larry Yee, a thirty year veteran of the University of California System (UC), disarmed the audience with a sly joke about “youthful STEAM in the audience” and “returning to the age of STEAM”, inserting the letter “A” for “Agriculture” into STEM.

A pithy, but provocative remark about success being more about what one does with what one knows than about what one knows was prefaced with the need for constant innovation. In fact, he described the 2017 Milken Institute where the subject of robotics was a major topic in that robots are becoming more pervasive faster than anyone imagined, although Bill Gates and Elon Misk warned about negative social impacts of rapid automation.

Smart phones means smart farms, he said, referencing the Forbes article about “big data’s” positive impact in agriculture.

With 40% to 50% of food produced in the United States wasted at some point on the production/distribution chain, STEM will help reduce this wastage and feed the 9 billion souls who are expected to populate the earth by 2050.

And Yee reminded that audience about one more great deed for which to thank President Lincoln: the teaching of agriculture on a mass scale across the country via the Land Grant colleges started in 1865, the year of his death. Each state was given a tract of land for a college and initially they taught agriculture and home economics. Now, innovations like integrated pest management, drip irrigation, plant varietals, agricultural labor and climate change come from the UC system, he said. In fact, the UC Stem is the R&D department for everything in agriculture in the United States, although its funding via the USDA is threatened by proposed 2017 budget cuts.

Ventura County: Competitive Edge versus Competitive Advantage

Yee explained the difference between the two concepts with “Competitive Edge” as something developed such like cost leadership, while “Competitive Advantage” is an innate characteristic. He then said that the fertile soil and perfect climate of Ventura County give the county a unique “Competitive Advantage”. Why not develop the following message: ”Superior high quality food grown in Ventura County. Make this message as ubiquitous as “Wine from Napa Valley”. This is a BIG IDEA.

Ventura County is positioned perfectly to serve the millions of Los Angeles County residents who are attuned to excellent food and demand it. Imagine, he said, what an amount equaling just 25% of the county agricultural sales going to Los Angeles County creating local distribution, marketing, sales and service jobs. He cited a study in Ohio where Cleveland achieved a bump by such a shift.

Diverting a Piece of County Agricultural Production for Local Benefit

Larry Yee is the co-founder of The Food Commons, a fully integrated food chain for local food. The prototype is in Fresno, California, the largest agricultural county in the world at $7.3 billion, but also one of the poorest with crime, obesity, drugs and gangs. Rather than the agricultural model where all is harvested locally and sold globally, The Food Commons looks to keep some of this production in the local economy enriching it with health and jobs. By diverting a piece of the process inward, he hopes to accomplish this. INNOVATION.

The Panel: Meeting the Need

Moderated by Dr. Greg Gillespie, President, Ventura College, the five panelists answered five questions. The panels were:

  • Jess Calvillo, Laboratory Director, AGO Labs USA
  • Brett Chandler, President/General Manager, Associates Insectary
  • Monica Houweling, Product Manager, Houweling’s Group (Houweling’s Tomatoes)
  • Joyce Hunter, CEO, Vulcan Enterprises LLC and former Deputy Chief Information Officer Policy and Planning, USDA
  • John P. Purcell, Ph.D., Vegetables Global R&D Lead, Hawaii Business Lead, Vice President, Distinguished Fellow, Monsanto Company(Seminis and DeRuiter)


Although there were several responses to each question, below are notable answers for each of the five questions follow.

Question 1: What does Agriculture need in its current and future workforce?

Purcell: After decades of farming, agriculture now emphasizes faster, smarter decision making using huge data sets and data management.

Question 2: How is STEM being utilized in Agriculture now?

Chandler: An app on the phone displays temperature and humidity in each room at the Insectary. The characteristics of each crop in the field can be studied via GPS on the IPAD. And every insect released is tracked on-line.

Question 3: What are the ways STEM will be further incorporated into Agriculture in the future?

Purcell: Using molecular analysis, they can predict successful seeds rather than testing all possible combinations in the ground.

Question 4: What are the challenges and barriers that must be overcome?

Calvillo: Student debt and how to manage.

Question 5: How can the educational system provide the necessary skills and training to meet that need

Hunter: Start young. Career day in elementary and middle school. See

Houeling: Coming out of a prestigous school, Pepperdine, working in the field was a reality check. Agriculture is not about instant gratification, but a process.

Other Speakers

Gabriel Youtsey, Chief Innovation Officer, UC/ANR

Henry Gonzales, VEntyura County Agricultural Commissioner

John Krist, CEO, Farm Bureau of Ventura County

The entire three hours was videotaped. When the url is posted, it will be added to this article.

For more information about the author, click sherylhamlin dot com.

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