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By Vicky Boyd

The San Joaquin Farm Bureau took a page from Ag in the Classroom, hosting San Joaquin Delta College leaders recently on a daylong show-and-tell tour of the county’s largest industry – agriculture. The group received a first-hand view of the changing nature of agriculture and how farmers and allied agricultural industries need a highly skilled, trained workforce.

“It’s hands-on education,” said SJFB President David Strecker. “We can have meetings on the campus. But to get out and see the crops being grown and to meet the people who are involved, it’s hands on. It’s face to face.”

Based on recent interactions with Board of Trustee members and improvements that have begun at the college’s Manteca farm campus, he said he has renewed optimism about the future of Delta College’s ag programs.

“This is bringing back good memories,” said Strecker, a Delta College alum, as he looked across the Manteca farm. “But hopefully it’s looking to a better future.”

That has not always been the case. The Delta College Board of Trustees in 2016 considered selling their 160-acre Manteca farm and moving agricultural programs to a satellite campus in Galt. The board eventually backed down from the plan after strong opposition, including that from SJFB.

More recently, agricultural program offerings had dwindled, and the college was down to 1.5 ag-related professors.

The college has since filled a couple of open ag teaching positions, and ground was recently broken on a new pavilion/barn just west of the Highway 99 frontage road.

“There seems to be a lot of engagement with the Board of Trustees,” Strecker said. “There’s a lot of excitement from the new president. Now it’s just a matter of getting the facilities up to date on the farm.”

Omid Pourzanjani, who was hired as Delta College president in June, said tours such as the one SJFB hosted help college leaders learn what local employers need from a workforce.

“The employers in the industry that are hiring, what type of technological skills do they need from applicants?” he said. “The only way we know that is becoming educated ourselves. So if the leadership of the college is in tune with what the needs are, they can make better decisions on the programs we start, the efforts we start. Besides, it’s fun to get to learn about what’s happening in our community.”

Need for skilled workers

Dave Phippen, a Manteca-area almond grower and partner in Travaille & Phippen Inc., showed Delta College leaders around his family’s almond huller-sheller operation. One technology of which he’s most proud is his robotic sorting, which removes defective nuts.

From the start, Phippen has had one employee who has learned how to dial in the sorters so they grade to each buyer’s specifications without removing sound kernels.

Along the tour, he also discussed the sustainability goals the almond industry as a whole has set through the Almond Board of California.

“My generation is using one-third less water to grow almonds than the previous generation, but we’ve picked all of the low-hanging fruit,” said Phippen, also an Almond Board member. “We’re becoming way more efficient and using drip irrigation or micro-sprinklers. Over 80% (of the industry) now has adopted that technology. Why wouldn’t you?”

But the robotic systems and irrigation scheduling require skilled workers, he said, citing Felix Garcia Jr. as an example. A Modesto Junior College graduate, Garcia uses soil moisture probes and other technologies to ensure the almond trees receive the right amount of water and none is wasted.

Don and Nancy Franzia, who own four Bobcat dealerships in the Central Valley and one in Reno, Nevada, have had trouble filling three mechanics positions. And they say their situation is shared by other equipment dealers in the county.

“There’s demand. There are jobs and there’s good pay,” Don Franzia said. “We’ve been crying for ag mechanics for years.”

Like many other agricultural jobs, mechanics have evolved with technology so they now have a wrench in one hand and a laptop computer in the other, he said.

Although Delta College does have a Caterpillar diesel mechanic training program, Nancy Franzia said those students feed into Caterpillar. What she’d like to see is a general tractor mechanic program at Delta College.

Stockton-based Bobcat Central has donated three engines to MJC’s tractor mechanic program, and Nancy Franzia said she’d love to make an engine donation to Delta College should it start a similar program.

Larry Fisk, a pest control adviser for the city of Tracy, said many of the state’s 4,000 licensed PCAs – including himself – are nearing retirement age, and the industry needs trained advisers to step in to fill the voids.

In addition to specific college curriculum, PCAs must have one to two years of field experience and pass a test administered by the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

The group also toured the Trinchero Family Estates wine bottling plant near Lodi, where they saw fully automated bottling lines and an autonomous cart system that delivered and tracked up to 72,000 pallets in a seven-story warehouse.

At the Michael David Winery near Lodi, the group ran into Stuart Spencer, executive director of the Lodi Winegrape Commission, who was there for a photo shoot. As he talked about wine being a true value-added agricultural product, Spencer also planted the seed for a strong hospitality industry within the region.

A catch-22

One of the challenges California community colleges face is most of their funding comes from the state, said Kathleen Bruce, a Delta College forensics professor and Academic Senate president who represents college faculty.

To justify adding a new program, college leaders must first show a demand – a kind of catch-22. But without those programs, students may go elsewhere to colleges that do offer them.

“We just pushed for two ag positions, but we don’t have the students to justify them,” she said. “We’re building the (barn) structure, but we need people to come into the structures. We depend on state funding, which mirrors the market.

But Bruce and others said they hope that the expanding ag curriculum as well as improvements to the Manteca campus will bring more students. Strecker agreed and said regardless of the industry, curb appeal – such as offered by the new pavilion/barn visible from Highway 99 – can only be a positive.y development, that could extend into late June or early July 2020, Pelican said.