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One Year In: What Has $65 Million Federal Grant Done for Valley Economy?

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Just over a year ago, the Central Valley Community Foundation, along with UC Merced, Fresno State, and eight community colleges, announced they were recipients of a $65 million grant from the federal Build Back Better Regional Challenge.

We’re tired of importing things from other parts of the world we can invent here, we can manufacture here. Higher paying jobs need to land here.”Ashley Swearengin, president, Central Valley Community Foundation

Pitched as a way to unite agriculture and technology, the F3 Program (standing for Farms, Food, Future) promised to use the Valley’s powerhouse industry to create a high-tech workforce and bring research dollars to advance the area’s economy.

The collaboration hopes that by next year they will have a research incubator and a new certificate program for workers in ag food.

“We can be the ones to develop world-recognized climate-smart food and agricultural systems and technology to solve our own problems, to solve our own environmental challenges, to solve our own economic problems,” said Ashley Swearengin, president of the Central Valley Community Foundation. “We’re tired of importing things from other parts of the world we can invent here, we can manufacture here. Higher paying jobs need to land here.”

Ashley Swearengin, president of the Central Valley Community Foundation, celebrates one year of F3 funding at Fresno State on Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2023. (GV Wire/Jahz Tello)

UC Merced, Fresno State to Link Research with Industry Needs

One of F3’s major goals is to bring research and innovation money to the area. Led by the University of California Merced, the two universities formed a new nonprofit, F3 Innovate, to act as a liaison between industry leaders and the two research centers, according to Josh Viers, associate vice chancellor of interdisciplinary research and strategic initiatives with UC Merced.

Industry leaders would come to F3 Innovate with problems they need solving. The universities can help facilitate the research to overcome those challenges.

Money has paid for nine faculty members, nine graduate students, and several post-doctoral scholars, Viers said. Money has also gone toward “leveling up” research equipment, Viers said.

Together with private capital, F3 money would draw in researchers to the area.

One company, Farm-NG issued the Farm Robotics Challenge.

F3 money purchased 10 robots from the company and sent them out to community colleges and universities for robotics students to work on. The company tasked the different students to adapt their “Amiga” robot for a specific farm function.

Students with the Fresno State Smart Agricultural Robot Bulldog team created a precision weed-spraying technology that could be put onto the robot.

Community Colleges to Train Labor for Manufacturing Jobs

Money from F3 will give students the basic training employers need to work in food processing jobs, said Chris Vitelli, superintendent and president of Merced College.

Food producers had repeatedly told Vitelli about the need for workers with basic training in manufacturing line technology. The consensus among the colleges was to create a 12-unit certificate program to give students a baseline knowledge of how to work in manufacturing. From there, employers can specialize their workers.

“They’ll learn core competencies on logic controls, basic math, and agriculture, ag management,” said Vitelli. “The competencies are pretty broad for this first one, it’s foundational. And then the goal is to either upskill them with a specific technology in a specific industry.”

The goal is to have 8,400 students receive certificates in the next three to four years.

Vitelli said the rise of robotics has threatened some agricultural jobs. Half of the 8,400 students would be former ag workers looking to transition to different jobs, he said.

The program is self-paced, but most students should be able to finish it in two to four months.

The eight participating colleges are:

  • Merced College
  • Fresno City College
  • Clovis Community College
  • Madera Community College
  • Reedley College
  • West Hills College Lemoore
  • West Hills College Coalinga
  • College of the Sequoias

At Merced College, they will be opening an Ag Innovation Center. A small nut processing plant, a fruit and vegetable processing plant, a meat lab, and a nutrition lab will give students hands-on training.

“If you think about all the programs, again, from farm to table, those will all be housed in one center now, where many of our disciplines will be working together on the logistics of that,” Vitelli said.

How Does F3 Work?

Of the 529 applications received by the U.S. Economic Development Administration, the F3 proposal was one of 32 granted money.

“This was a very competitive proposal,” said Alejandra Castillo, assistant secretary for economic development with the U.S. Department of Commerce. And the reason it was competitive is because it’s incorporating technology innovation into a very needed industry — agriculture — with the aim to not only create better-paying jobs but also infusing technology that will make it more sustainable and increase yields.”

The goal is to incentivize innovation and get government out of the way, Castillo said.

“At times, in the past, these type of grants have been very prescriptive, it’s tedious,” Castillo said. “It’s sometimes very hard to do business with the federal government. This time around, we took a much more innovative approach, and that was — let’s not tell communities what they need to do, let’s ask communities what they need to do.”

In Tulsa, Oklahoma, a group is working on drone technology. In New York, chip manufacturing is the focus.

In Fresno, the major dollar recipients were UC Merced, leading the innovation portion, Merced College, leading the workforce portion, and UC Agriculture and Natural Resources leading local projects. UCANR is working with small-scale farmers — especially Black, indigenous, and people of color — to help them adopt sustainable technologies to the degree large-scale farming operations can.

Central Valley Community Foundation received funding to facilitate communication between the groups.

Dollar amounts and how much has been spent so far were not immediately available on Tuesday.

Edward Smith began reporting for GV Wire in May 2023. His reporting career began at Fresno City College, graduating with an associate degree in journalism. After leaving school he spent the next six years with The Business Journal, doing research for the publication as well as covering the restaurant industry. Soon after, he took on real estate and agriculture beats, winning multiple awards at the local, state and national level. You can contact Edward at 559-440-8372 or at Edward.Smith@gvwire.com.