Coinciding with the 95th State Future Farmers of America (FFA) Leadership Conference, held March 16-19 in Ontario, CA, FFA middle and high school students from across the state visited the University of California, Riverside (UCR) to tour campus and learn more about agricultural science, research, technology, and career opportunities at the College of Natural & Agricultural Sciences (CNAS).
FFA members live by the following motto: learning to do, doing to learn, earning to live, and living to serve. Those sentiments capture the experience many FFA students had during their visit.
“I have been looking forward to learning about the agricultural field, and based on what I’ve seen today, I will seriously be considering [UCR] in the future,” said junior Beyonce Garcia from Gonzales High School in the Salinas Valley. “I want to go into plant science, and the tour really influenced me to apply to UCR.”
Introducing students to future possibilities is what Kelly Dawkins, an agriculture science teacher at Gonzales High School, is all about. “I want my students to see what’s outside of their normal day-to-day scene,” she said. “In the Salinas Valley, we’re embedded in lettuce, cauliflower, asparagus, and spinach production – we’re in the salad bowl of California. Seeing citrus production and the greenhouse operation at UCR, which are less common in our area, is key.”
Dawkins added, “I want them to see educational institutions that are further from home, but that can offer so much to them. My goal is to enable them to experience different facets of agriculture, but also the different opportunities that exist outside [the Salinas Valley].”
FFA is part of a school-based national youth leadership development organization, with more than 850,000 members in 8,995 local chapters across all 50 states, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. FFA is not just for students who want to be production farmers. The organization welcomes members who aspire to careers as teachers, doctors, researchers, and scientists. Those career tracks, as Beyonce and her fellow students learned on the tour, can be explored to their fullest with a UCR education.
The walking tour of campus was led by two CNAS Science Ambassadors, Vidhya Kumaraswamy, a fourth-year biology major, and Syreze San Andres, a fourth-year neuroscience major with a minor in environmental science. “I’m really giving students an insight into what it means to be not just a student, but a researcher at UCR,” said Syreze.
Vidhya told the FFA students that UCR helped her decide which aspect of biology to pursue as a career. “I was interested in general biology, not knowing exactly what I wanted to concentrate in or what I wanted to do after graduation,” she said. “But by taking these incredible classes and meeting the amazing professors here at UCR, [plus] clubs and organizations, everything became clearer.”
Vidhya credited the Green Campus Action Plan (GCAP), an on-campus sustainability organization dedicated to making the campus greener, with helping her discover where her passion lay.
“The number one thing I would say to all prospective students is that UCR is a very friendly campus, and the professors and teaching assistants are more than happy to see you during office hours,” Vidhya said. “I would encourage them to get out of their comfort zone and ask for help, engage, connect, and meet new people. I know a lot of students are interested in research, and while it can seem like an intimidating process, I promise that it’s not like that at all. The professors are always available and eager to answer questions and to help.”
Next on the tour was a stop Plant Research 1 (PR1), a component of the Living Laboratories at UCR. The two-story, state-of-the-art facility includes 16 greenhouse modules that can be programmed to control humidity, temperature and lighting. The modules can also maintain environmental conditions such as tropical/temperate forest, savanna, scrubland, desert, and tundra ecosystems. The settings can be controlled and monitored remotely. PR1 also features plant growth chambers for specialized research and housing for biotechnology research equipment. It also has clean and dirty labs designed to meet the needs of CNAS researchers.
The Living Laboratories define part of the UCR Agricultural Experimental Stations which, in addition to PR1, include the Botanic Gardens, UCR Nature Reserves and Plant Variety Collections. Research conducted in these labs addresses climate change, sustainable approaches to food supply, protection of natural resources, people and communities, and economic and ecological viability for California, the nation, and the world.
“The incredible research opportunities that are here guarantee that the students have an opportunity to go in any direction they want,” said Peggy Mauk, Director of the Agricultural Operations at UCR.
Mauk was on-hand to introduce the FFA students to the goings-on at PR1, and how it supports field research, greenhouses, and other growing facilities for CNAS faculty and staff.
“They saw the state-of-the-art facilities at the Plant Research 1 plant growth center, as well as the hands-on activities they can do here in R’Garden,” said Mauk. “The students also saw the diversity of agriculture that we have at the research station. It’s limitless for them!”
At PR1, FFA students spoke with Maritssa Nolasco and Jordan Guillory, mathematics majors and members of UCR’s Digital Agriculture Fellowship (DAF). Elia Scudiero, a professional researcher in UCR’s Department of Environmental Sciences, was also on hand to shed light on the DAF, whose goal is to revitalize interest in agricultural careers by providing students with the experience and guidance necessary to enter the U.S. agricultural workforce. Throughout the program, students are given networking opportunities, hands-on research experience, and mentoring.
According to Scudiero, the DAF is funded via a federal grant, and looks at how artificial intelligence is used to increase the sustainability of agricultural systems. The DAF is a collaborative effort between UCR, CNAS, and the School of Public Policy.
“A big part of our effort is trying to bring students who are unengaged with agriculture into the fold, students that otherwise would have pursued other careers,” Scudiero said. “We are trying to show them that there’s a bright future in agriculture-related technologies. For many of them, it’s opening up new doors of opportunity for people who are interested in data science, computer science, and engineering.”
“I think it’s important to learn from other people’s experiences,” added Maritssa. “In my case, being a math major and coming into the agriculture program, not knowing that it was something that I would love, was a revelation. It’s important to experience different things out of the realm of your own personal experience, because you could end up with a whole new career view and loving it as I do.”
Maritssa, who hails from the Coachella Valley, said that before enrolling at UCR, she didn’t know that a data science branch of agriculture even existed. “When I entered, I learned about data science mapping [and] tabulations of speed, so math was incorporated. Recently, I found out from Professor Scudiero that there’s an agriculture teaching program. I thought the only thing for me was math, but knowing I could have a teaching experience with agriculture is exciting.
“Where I come from, you see farmers everywhere,” she continued “Coachella is where the annual date festival is held. I want to learn about and be involved in that, and UCR is the best place to enable that.”
FAA students also visited UCR’s R'Garden, an eight-acre plot that grows fresh produce and provides UCR students with an opportunity to learn about social, environmental, and economic sustainability. A student resource center and community garden, R’Garden aims to educate people about food systems in Riverside and the importance of having access to fresh, local produce. R’Garden promotes service learning and community-based research through student-led projects and collaborations with the campus and local community.
Mauk said that CNAS’ goal is to educate students on where their food comes from and how they can develop the life skills to provide for themselves and others.
“By working here,” she said, “students are learning how to grow plants and provide for people that are less fortunate.”
She reminded the FFA students that many people don’t have access to fresh produce due to food deserts, and because “it’s cheaper to go to McDonald’s or Burger King than have a healthy salad or fresh broccoli.”
The last stop on the tour was UCR’s Agricultural Operations (AgOps) research center, which is representative of two unique California ecosystems: the desert and inland Southern California. FFA students received an in-depth history lesson about agricultural research at UCR, and learned about current research taking place on AgOps’ 1,000+ acres of land.
“It’s important for us to showcase that we have an exciting and wide range of agricultural opportunities and activities happening at UCR,” said Scudiero. “Having students come and learn about our citrus breeding and turf grass programs, soil science, and irrigation management will, perhaps, get them excited to join us. The FFA students are bright, and we want to brightest to come here.”
To underscore the importance of everything the FFA students learned throughout the day, Maritssa Nolasco offered up a more holistic view of agriculture’s importance.
“Agriculture is everywhere,” she declared. “It’s all around us!”