Students from diverse backgrounds pursue agriculture
With four undergraduate colleges and over 100 majors to choose from, many students leave UC Davis without ever scratching the surface of the agricultural sciences. However, agricultural science is the backbone of education for the 7,491 students in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences (CAES).
Geoff Koch, a fourth-year sustainable agriculture and food systems major, attributes his budding interest in agriculture to growing up in a rural town in Southern California, where his family owned a couple of acres of land, horses and chickens.
Throughout his life, Koch watched his friends participate in Future Farmers of America (FFA) and the 4-H organization. FFA is a national organization for American youth that promotes and supports agricultural education through classes and contests. 4-H is based in agricultural education but also allows students to explore a broader range of topics such as public speaking and computer science.
“After high school, I explored different jobs working in construction, on a fishing boat and largely in food service, but none of these were professionally interesting to me,” Koch said. “I learned I was interested in working with food, but I wanted to move up the supply chain. UC Davis attracted me for its sustainable agriculture and food systems program and its emphasis on agricultural science with a social science context.”
Growing up in a family that raised its own chickens and eggs, Koch said that he naturally gravitated toward agriculture and was especially interested in where food comes from. Koch currently works for Next Generation Foods, a successful rice farming company operating out of West Sacramento that supplies to local industries and universities, including the UC Davis Dining Commons.
“I’m interested in sustainable design in agriculture, on-farm design and how it can affect agricultural-ecological concerns,” Koch said. “This job has introduced me to nutrient management, ecosystem services and how design can affect and improve those situations on the farm. Agriculture is all about how you can make small changes that can have big impacts.”
After graduation, Koch hopes to continue working for Next Generation Foods, which has offered him a full-time position and salary. While Koch is grateful for this opportunity, his ultimate goal is to attend graduate school and eventually start his own business.
“My business idea will probably take on a lot of different forms,” Koch said. “I want to explain and uncover a lot of things that are misunderstood about agriculture and help it do a better job of representing itself. When agriculture is better communicated to the world, a lot of the public’s concerns about it will sort themselves out.”
Besides public concerns about the agricultural industry, Koch has a personal mission to learn more about the control of large sectors of the economy by a few players, and he questions what these players will do with the power they have. Koch stressed that consumers should let industries know what the public expects of agriculture because, with more knowledge on the subject and the natural changes that come along with progress, peoples’ concerns will continue to be addressed.
“There are really promising ideas and technologies that will improve workers’ safety and will make agriculture be able to feed more people, but also enable it to be a sustainable model that will improve environmental conditions and reduce negative impacts,” Koch said. “I’m excited for the potential of what myself and others can do in agriculture but it is an ongoing process. I would encourage people to look at agriculture, be critical and find sources of information that are credible.”
Gabby Franke, a third-year managerial economics major, with an emphasis on agriculture, grew up spending time on her grandfather’s egg ranch in California. Franke first became interested in agriculture through her pre-college involvement in FFA and 4-H.
“I raised goats for the fair in high school and actually worked on a farm during one summer which was a huge part of what made me appreciate agriculture,” Franke said. “Through FFA I got a lot of experience in different parts of agriculture and even went to Foster Farms. I saw big, corporate agriculture but we would go to family farms too so I got a good taste of California agriculture.”
Franke is now giving back to FFA by working as a student events assistant for UC Davis’ 41st annual Field Day. The CAES hosts Field Day to provide high school students with the opportunity to visit Davis and celebrate their knowledge of agriculture. The students perform in contests ranging from livestock judging to agriculture computer applications.
While Franke is proud to be involved in the university’s largest agricultural event, she knows that this opportunity would not be possible without UC Davis’ ties to the agricultural industry and its strong extension programs.
“If you’re an agriculture student you kind of have an advantage in the classroom because most of the professors are doing their work in agriculture research,” Franke said. “These professors also bring their students into the research fold and give them hands-on experience. My [agricultural] background has helped me relate and understand curriculum on a deeper level compared to people who may not have this background.”
Due to the prestige of CAES, the college receives immense financial funding and support from the industry itself, as many alumni who become successful in the industry donate their time and money back to UC Davis. For this reason, Franke feels fortunate to study in this field and encourages other students to do the same.
“There’s this idea of corporate agriculture being evil, and I don’t have a lot of opinions on that, but actual farmers and people who do the work are hardworking and trustworthy,” Franke said. “Agriculture is always innovating itself, growing and flexing to serve and help people. It’s a great thing to study because there are always opportunities to do something to help change and improve our culture.”
Agriculture is rooted in tradition, but it has seen beneficial additions and updates, just as Field Day has. Jamie Dehn, events coordinator for the Student Activities and Outreach of the CAES, is head coordinator of Field Day for the second year now.
“Something really cool that a lot of people might not realize about Field Day is that a lot of [high school] students who come to visit Davis wouldn’t necessarily to be able to afford to come see it were it not for FFA,” Dehn said. “In our Field Day class [AED 190] right now, about 75 percent of the students taking the class participated in Field Day when they were in high school and said that it was actually why they chose to come to Davis. It’s great to see young students here because many of them find themselves attending UC Davis and coordinating Field Day from the other end. It was such a big part of their lives and now it’s their way of giving back.”
Dehn does not come from an agricultural background, but, after meeting students through planning Field Day, she has a newfound respect for those who pursue agriculture.
“The amount of knowledge that these students have to know is amazing, and on the day of [the event], they come in and knock it out of the park,” Dehn said. “These kids really care about agriculture and a lot of them have plans to pursue it in college and make a difference, whether on their family farm or in the government […], they’re going places.”
The industry is very human-focused, Dehn noted, and everyone in the field has a unique story as to what motivates them to succeed. UC Davis agriculture students use those unique backgrounds as fuel for innovation that will make feeding the world possible despite various obstacles.
“It’s a ton more than just wanting to go to school to be a farmer,” Koch said. “Agriculture touches every industry — technology, construction, engineering, biotechnology, chemistry, but there are [also] so many social aspects having to deal with workers’ safety and immigration. I came back to what I grew up with, and I’m never going to stop being interested in food and where it comes from and how important that is.”