From the Field
Expo in Parlier Highlights Critical Farmer Perspectives to Achieve Appropriate and Equitable Ag Tech
BFI staff and students volunteered at the first-ever Small Farmer Tech Expo at the Kearney Agricultural Research and Extension Center in the Central Valley. The event brought farmers, researchers, students, and technology companies together to discuss appropriate agricultural technology.
Throughout this year, the Berkeley Food Institute (BFI) has been developing a new program area dedicated to appropriate and equitable agricultural technologies. The goal is to offer students and faculty opportunities to better engage with and learn from farmers, farmworkers, and community based organizations that are advocating for accessible, appropriate, and equitable ag tech. On November 8, 2023, BFI’s staff traveled down to Parlier, CA with eight UC Berkeley students to volunteer in the first ever joint UC Agriculture and Natural Resources (UC ANR) and Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF) Small Farmer Tech Expo at the Kearney Agricultural Research and Extension Center. The expo is part of the Fresno-Merced Farms Food Future project, or F3, that aims to create an ag tech hub in the heart of the Central Valley for farmers and industry in an effort to revitalize the Central Valley’s economy.
CAFF and UC ANR invited ag tech companies that could specifically cater to farmers with operations ranging from 5 to 50 acres and offer products that spanned the production process from weed management, irrigation, small robots (electric carts, semi-autonomous tractors, etc.), cold storage, and seeding & harvesting tools. What set this expo apart from other farmer gatherings was its focus on small farms and attention to language access, especially for Spanish, Punjabi, and Hmong speaking farmers. If farmers are ever introduced into the ag tech innovation and design process, it’s usually at the tail end and only centering larger and better resourced growers and producers. In that same respect, we gathered students from across the campus with diverse academic backgrounds that included Environmental Health and Safety, Law, Conservation and Resource Management, Business, Environmental Sciences, Policy, and Management, as well as Development Engineering.
The day-long expo began with some students helping ag tech companies set up their demo sights, working with CAFF’s videography team to capture the day’s events, ensuring farmers signed media release forms (for utmost protection of their privacy), or greeting and registering farmers that were coming from all over the San Joaquin Valley or Central Coast. Farmers were then ushered to their preferred language group and rotated through each demo area. Once the farmers had a chance to see each product, they were given information about how to finance purchasing any one of the featured products (think NRCS, CARB, or CDFA), followed by focus groups facilitated by UC ANR staff where our students helped collect feedback about the technologies. This is where things really got interesting.
Because the farmers were able to speak in the languages they speak at home with their loved ones, they felt more comfortable giving honest feedback. For some, sure, there were some products that they could see themselves borrowing from the UC ANR tool lending library and maybe even purchasing. For others, the level of distrust in the UC system and our government farming agencies coupled with near insurmountable barriers to vital farming necessities like land access and capital leave the desire for new ag tech adoption at the very bottom of their priorities. One student in the English speaking cohort commented how farmers “expressed that it would be very helpful if UC ANR could help them evaluate different equipment, products, and technologies because private companies try to sell them a lot of different things, and it’s overwhelming for [farmers] to figure out the feasibility, cost, and quality of these products.” Having students participate in these discussions is exactly what fuels us to build our appropriate and equitable technologies program.
It is essential for students to have those face to face conversations with farmers by meeting farmers where they’re at to learn directly from farmers exactly what their needs and challenges are. Learning experiences like this should also be available to UC ANR researchers, NGOs like CAFF, and the companies who demonstrated their products. As one student observed in the Punjabi speaking cohort, the farmers “expressed a need for consolidated, tailored recommendations and monitoring tools that provide applicable insights across their unique operations. Having a single, user-friendly source of information, instead of multiple apps or data streams, would enable more streamlined technological adoption.” By taking these students out of Berkeley away from their bustling and concrete-filled everyday life and bringing them into the quieter, open, and vast farmlands of the Central Valley, we can give students a learning experience that no textbook or classroom lecture alone could achieve.
At BFI, we have a charge to shed light on the issues our farming and food system workers confront. The way ag technology has been rolled out, often with the full throated support by academic institutions and coupled with little space for critical perspective, oversight, or accountability, has been a growing concern for decades for farmers, farmworkers, and rural communities in general. We hope to expand these types of offerings for students as well as researchers to offer a more nuanced perspective of ag tech and put small farmers, farm workers, and rural communities at the forefront of research and education of appropriate and equitable technology. Otherwise, ag tech will simply remain a hammer looking for a nail.
Funding for this trip was provided by the CS Fund.