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African American Farmers of California (AAFC)

“We need to make sure African-American farmers are visible because, for a long time, we’ve been invisible. We, as a people, have played a tremendous part in agriculture throughout the U.S.”  – William Scott Jr., AAFC President

According to the 2018-2019 California Agricultural Statistics Review through the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA), California is home to over sixty nine thousand farms. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) 2017 Agriculture Census noted that, of those farms, only 429 were run by African American producers–operating over seventy five thousand acres. That is barely over a half percent of farms in the state–and less than two percent nationally, due to historically discriminatory practices within the USDA causing black farmers to lose 80 percent of their farmland from 1910 to 2007, from lack of access to loans or insurance needed to sustain their businesses.

A non-profit in California’s Central Valley hopes to combat that historical discrimination by empowering African-American growers to provide their communities with fresh, wholesome food.

“We take care of the land, the land will take care of us. Then we’ll take care of the community.” – William Scott Jr., AAFC President

Tractor tilling soil at the AAFC demonstration farm.

Tucked behind Kearney Park on the outskirts of Fresno, California, at the intersection of California and Fair, a sixteen acre farming demonstration site serves as the homebase for African American Farmers of California (AAFC.) Established in 1997, founders William Scott Jr. and Ken Grimes started by doing door-to-door outreach for members in the nearby west Fresno neighborhoods. In the past twenty years, they’ve built a community of over twenty farmers to support current growers through agro-tourism, farmers markets, and educational awareness, while training future farmers in operating equipment and basic farming skills. To further this cause, they have begun the process of becoming a healthy soils demonstration project in collaboration with the Fresno State UC Extension, which will qualify them for additional equipment to manage the land, train their members, and more efficiently grow their crops under the program’s grant funding.

“If we can get the message across about supporting a variety of farmers, and get more people interested and taking quality food to where it should be, then I’ve done my job. This is what I was born to do.” – William Scott Jr., AAFC President

Line of crops at the AAFC demonstration farm.

Scott and Grimes have been pivotal in reintroducing Southern specialty crops, which have long been a part of the traditional African-American diet, into the central valley. These crops grow seasonally, with summers bringing black-eyed, crowder, and purple hull peas, okra, turnips, and tomatoes, while winters serve up mustard, turnip, and collard greens, spinach, broccoli and carrots. The AAFC hopes to provide their growers with an outlet to distribute these crops via the USDA Farmers to Families Food Box program, next year.

If you are interested in attending their monthly meetings‒starting at 5:30pm every second Tuesday‒you can reach out to their Vice President, LaKeishia Martin, at africanamericanfarmersofca@gmail.com. Follow them on Facebook to stay tuned for their field day showcase next year.

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Volt Institute

Written by Tyler Richardson and Kevin Fox

It’s an exciting time at VOLT Institute. Two years of planning for scaled-out manufacturing training is finally coming to fruition. New equipment is arriving and being assembled. Additional instructors are coming onboard. Guided by an advisory board comprised of local employers, the organization seeks to adjust and move forward quickly. This includes changes to allow for operations amidst a global pandemic.

While the debates over masks, indoor dining, and county-specific guidelines continue, VOLT Institute never missed a beat. VOLT staff developed and implemented a comprehensive plan to keep students engaged and progressing toward in-demand careers in manufacturing with higher wages and job security. When school closures began in late March, VOLT had remote learning in place and students transitioned seamlessly. By April, other VOLT Institute training opportunities also moved into the virtual realm. 

The Supervisor Development Academy operated in partnership with Ag Safe began meeting online with workshops adjusted to two hour time blocks instead of four. Admittedly, there were concerns that this training for frontline supervisors to tackle real world situations while managing teams would not be as effective in a virtual space, but Ag Safe trainer Angelina Ceja reported that feedback from participants in this workshop remains positive. Volt’s Supervisor Development Academy gives supervisors a foundation to develop skills essential to furthering their personal and organizational success. The program addresses leadership, communication, conflict resolution, planning, and team building with an emphasis on building peer-to-peer relationships.

VOLT Institute’s popular efficiency training, Career Accelerator Program (CAP), taught by Beaudette Consulting INC. was made available remotely as well. This valuable curriculum focuses on organizational change management, continuous improvement, employee engagement, process improvement, and critical thinking problem solving are the “soft skill” training industry demands. Student survey results indicated that the length of time for each of the online training sessions was appropriate and engaging and either met or exceeded expectations. 

VOLT Institute campus reopened June 15 it was with strict COVID-19 protocols in place including mandatory wearing of masks. To ensure social distancing, students comfortable returning to the downtown Modesto campus continued their training on campus by appointment. One-on-one instruction is being offered by VOLT instructors to help students make up time lost during the mandatory shutdown.

Through it all, VOLT administration continues developing new partnerships with regional manufacturers such as the new internship program with Flowers Baking Co. This partnership gives VOLT students an opportunity to receive valuable work experience. Recently, two VOLT graduates have been accepted into E. & J. Gallo Winery’s maintenance apprenticeship program. Other VOLT graduates have started new careers in manufacturing at California’s oldest family-owned dairy, Crystal Creamery and the world’s largest plastic pipe manufacturer, JM Eagle.  Reports from VOLT alumni about promotions and wage increases are too numerous to list but VOLT is especially proud of its 96% job placement rate. 

VOLT also partnered with Valley First Credit Union to provide loans to students. This allows students looking to improve their long-term wage outcomes to apply for funding with most payments deferrable until the program is complete. The application process is online and very user-friendly. In addition, students get to participate in financial wellness training. Before the availability of the loan program, some potential students were deterred by the cost, which is low compared to similar programs of VOLT’s caliber but still represented a modest financial investment.

VOLT’s Senior Leadership Series in partnership with Next Gear Consulting is back. The series is designed to teach top level manufacturing and other executives important skills in strategic planning, building a positive company culture and leadership. Taught by Kristi Marsella, CEO of Next Gear Consulting, and former VP of Human Resources at G3 and E. & J. Gallo Winery, this series is a great opportunity to improve leadership skills. 

One of the most in demand technical skills for plant maintenance mechanics to have as the fourth industrial revolution progresses is a solid understanding of the internet of things. The implementation of complex automation has become the standard throughout industry. VOLT Institute’s partnership with Automation Group to teach both introductory and intermediate Programmable Logic Controls (PLC) courses as part of the award-winning industrial maintenance mechanics programs in a 20-hour boot camps are efficient and helpful for participants. Three boot camps are being offered for the summer session through August and September with assistance from California Manufacturing Technology Consulting (CMTC). Reduced student capacity for the training helps accommodate social distancing protocols.

As VOLT continues to receive deliveries from Amatrol, unpack and install new mechatronic, process control, and advanced electrical training equipment from the shipping crates, the vision first conceived three years ago starts to fall into place. Unskilled or semi-skilled workers have the opportunities to acquire the aptitude and the attitude to be competitive in a fast-paced manufacturing environment. They can earn higher wages with job security while fueling a vibrant, healthy economy in the Central Valley Region by strengthening each company’s most valuable asset: their people. All this happens while simultaneously hearing the voices from the advisory board and responding to the needs of investor partners in a rapidly evolving manufacturing industry. Training in electro-mechanical work with advanced programmable logic controls experience and access to nationally-recognized certifications such as National Institute for Metalworking Skills (NIMS) coupled with the new technology training are a pathway for long term sustainability for California’s Central Valley manufacturing industry. 

In the midst of a global pandemic, one thing stands out. Strategic planning is how to move forward. The ability to be nimble is a key component to the success of any strategic plan. If the plan doesn’t work, change the plan, not the goal. VOLT Institute is proud to be part of the solution for California’s Central Valley manufacturing industry. Higher wages and job security are very good ways to attract new talent to the California manufacturing industry and grow quality of life for those already living in the area. Whether the talent is new to the area or locals with deep roots one thing is certain: VOLT will continue to thrive and provide the quality of training everyone in the area deserves.