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California Nets $65.1M Federal Grant to Improve Farm Tech

A multipronged proposal to advance home-grown agricultural technology, job training and support for small-scale farmers in the central San Joaquin Valley received a major boost in the form of a $65.1 million award.

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(TNS) — A multi-pronged proposal to advance home-grown agricultural technology, job training and support for small-scale farmers in the central San Joaquin Valley received a major boost Friday in the form of a $65.1 million award from the Biden administration and the U.S. Department of Commerce.

The Fresno-Merced Future of Food Innovation Coalition, or F3, is one of 21 regional proposals selected to receive grants from the federal government’s $1 billion Build Back Better Regional Challenge. It was among 60 finalists nationwide that were culled from a pool of almost 530 applicants.

The award from the Commerce Department’s Economic Development Administration will help launch the formation of a new agricultural-technology hub aimed at fostering the development of technology and software by researchers at the University of California-Merced and Fresno State along with farmers across Fresno, Kings, Madera, Merced and Tulare counties.

The F3 coalition includes university researchers, farmers, agricultural organizations, community colleges and manufacturers, with the Central Valley Community Foundation serving as the lead agency and coordinator of the grant proposal to the federal government.

“This is an unprecedented level of investment for the central San Joaquin Valley,” said Ashley Swearengin, president and CEO of the Valley foundation and a former Fresno mayor. “The fact that the region that feeds the nation is now the nation’s priority (is) a huge win for people who have been working for decades to grow small businesses, to connect farm workers with opportunities to move into higher paying jobs, to train scientists of today and tomorrow to create the technology we need to grow food sustainably.”

“This is everything coming together at once to benefit the people and places of the Central Valley,” she added.

Commerce Department officials said the grant will support the development of an agricultural technology hub, dubbed iCREATE. In a video pitch for the Valley proposal, Swearengin described iCREATE as an effort that “brings together the University of California research arm with the engineering capabilities of our state schools, alongside industry and community, all under one roof at a dedicated facility.”

The innovations in technology, software and equipment expected to be generated through the partnership will be aimed at not only boosting productivity for Valley agriculture overall, but providing support for small-scale farmers across the region – including southeast Asian, Latino, Black and other racial or historically disadvantaged racial or ethnic backgrounds – to improve efficiency and open more market opportunities.

Eight community colleges across the five-county region will also be involved in providing job skills training and certification for farm workers and food industry workers through what is called the AgTEC Workforce Initiative led by Merced College. The training will be geared toward low-skill, low-wage workers whose jobs are most likely to be displaced by automation, helping them gain the knowledge and skills they need for more advanced jobs in agriculture or food-related manufacturing.

“California farmworkers are the backbone of our nation’s food supply,” U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo said. “This investment will help unite a coalition of partners from academia, labor, business, government and philanthropy around a shared vision to build an innovative, equitable and resilient agricultural industry in California that will benefit farmers, especially minority and rural farmers and farmworkers.”

Swearengin said the grant represents a recognition at the federal level of the region’s role in producing food for much of the nation even as it confronts daunting issues of poverty, economic disparity, food insecurity and more.

“There is one area where we can boast more than any other region in the country, and that is the quality and diversity of food that is grown in the Central Valley,” she said, noting that about 60% of the nation’s fruit and nuts, and 30% of the nation’s vegetables, are grown here. “We made a big case to the federal government that this region, in our nation, is uniquely a priority.”

“We impact virtually every dinner table in America, and we do it with virtually no federal investment and we do it on a shoestring all the time,” Swearengin added. “That needs to change, and that’s what this announcement means for us: that what we’re doing matters, that it needs to be invested in, and that the people who are paying the biggest price to deliver that fresh food to people around the country need to benefit from that investment.”

The Build Back Better Regional Challenge receives its money from the American Rescue Plan passed last year as part of the Biden administration’s pandemic recovery program, and is focused on efforts to boost regional economic recovery and job creation through investments in industries including clean energy, next-generation, manufacturing and biotechnology, according to the Department of Commerce.

The winning projects for the grants come from 24 states and are receiving grants ranging from $25 million to $65 million for regional investments in local industries, businesses, workers and innovation. The federal awards are being matched by state and local investments as well as from private-sector companies.

“This is a big deal for our Valley,” said Rep. Jim Costa, D- Fresno. “This $65 million grant will build a stronger, more resilient food system by integrating new technologies, improving farm productivity, and creating good-paying jobs.”

U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla, D- Los Angeles, described Friday’s announcement as “an exciting moment for California and the Central Valley.”

The grant, Padilla added, “will accelerate research and boost job training opportunities in the agricultural sector throughout the Central Valley.”

The F3 Coalition is operating under the broader umbrella of the Fresno DRIVE initiative, launched in late 2019 with the goal of attracting about $4.2 billion in investments to improve economic development and opportunities in the Valley, with a particular focus on reducing economic disparities among – and within – communities throughout Fresno County and the broader region.

“There are a lot of struggles and challenges in the Central Valley, and the only way we can change those challenges into opportunities is to be honest about them and not shy away from the fact that we have deep levels of disinvestment, poverty and environmental struggle in this region,” Swearengin said.

“That’s a lot for us to be concerned about and to work on improving.”

© 2022 The Sacramento Bee. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.