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Agriculture gets wired

The future of farming is in the stars–and the hands of graduating high school seniors


Pigs in space may not be that far off.

The future of farming–both locally and nationally–is a blend of electronics, soil, information systems, and irrigation. Tomorrow’s farmers will have to have as much an education in digital technology as in raising livestock.

And many of those future farmers are getting that education locally. Santa Maria’s high schools and Cal Poly–all about to graduate a fresh crop of students–teach the modern basics, from chickens to computers.

Though there are a few questions about specific headcounts, students and staff generally agree that Santa Maria High School has the largest Future Farmers of America (FFA) chapter in California, the second-largest in the nation. Righetti High School’s FFA chapter is one of the top five largest chapters in the state.

The organizational structure starts at the chapter level, then moves to section region, state, and national.

At every level, members get a fresh perspective on one of the oldest businesses in the world. They raise animals, grow vegetables, tinker with tractors, and give speeches to audiences that number in the thousands.

Finishing high school, these students are preparing for roles in agriculture that their parents or grandparents may never have dreamed. Some are focusing on education. Others are looking into politics. Still more are stargazing, literally, as satellites and space-based technology affect crops from orbits high above the atmosphere.

But these students all have one thing in common: They take their agricultural education seriously. After all, they’re going to be feeding the nation–and possibly, the world–someday.


Sara Robinson wants to change the world’s perspective on farming and agriculture.

"Cows and plows. That’s all they think it is," she said.

Graduating from Santa Maria High School as an FFA member, Robinson’s next steps are to become an agriculture teacher."Everything revolves around agriculture," she said. "Everyone’s going to need cotton for clothes. Everyone’s going to need food."

Robinson believes that a well-educated public is one of the keys to successful farming in the future. She recently gave a speech about hydroponics at the sectional level of FFA. Hydroponics–growing plants without soil–is more cost-efficient than regular farming, she said, and there’s less chance of diseases.

She believes that as agricultural technology moves forward, the best thing she can do is help those who will benefit from it to understand it. And, with a global population that doesn’t show any signs of shrinking soon, there are going to be entire generations that not only need food, but need to be educated about where that food came from.

"What’s unfamiliar to them is not going to be comfortable to them," she said.

Robinson had no family background in agriculture, but quickly jumped into much of what her school’s FFA chapter had to offer: poultry and livestock judging, soil, vegetables, and flowers. Her experience with the "farming world" inspired her to educate others.

She’s going to be fighting against stereotypes, she said. A farm is a business, she stressed, and it’s a lot of hard work.


Collette Rose, graduating senior and FFA chapter president at Righetti High School, said that the connection between people and land has grown apart as mass production has taken over agriculture. Such production has led to ignorance of the workings of a farm on the part of consumers and dwindling markets for small-time producers.

Megan Brownell, the chapter’s reporter, recently spoke with the Santa Maria Farm Bureau, who asked her whether she foresaw the family farm surviving in the future.

"Unless that same family farm has another business … it’s going to suffer financially and socially," she said.

Rose and Brownell assembled an ag marketing plan for FFA state finals. Together, they stressed strong connections and cooperation between three groups: environmental, urban, and agricultural.

"Any agricultural issue in the future will be based on whether people can work together or not," Rose said. She added that agriculturists need to be involved in urban planning and environmental issues.

Brownell tossed out heaps of support as evidence, citing information about funding, land grants, co-cops, and appropriation rights. She’s articulate and confident–again, a far cry from the scowling faces beside the farmhouse and pitchfork in Grant Wood’s "American Gothic."

"We’re seeing the same issues arise again and again," she said, "because solutions are only temporary."

As an example, she mentioned the sale of 400 acres next to her family’s property. The land will be broken up into "ranchettes," she said, which will share the water table that feeds the wells that, in turn, feed her family and neighbor.

Rose said that her aunt and uncle’s DeBernardi Dairy is also getting a new neighbor–a school.

"There’s no way it can survive with a school being built right next to it," she said, adding that complaints about flies or something similar could ultimately close the last dairy in Santa Barbara County.

The two girls plan to attend Cal Poly, but not until a year after they graduate this June. They’re going to spend this next year teaching agricultural and motivational leadership at schools around California.

To be a part of this program, they competed against 59 other FFA state officer candidates in a series of tests, interviews, essays, and speeches. There were six offices available, and Rose and Brownell took two of them.

Three days after they graduate on June 13, they’ll start training in Pismo Beach. They’ll also spend four days in Idaho for a national leadership conference, and will then travel back to California to visit 100 schools, in pairs, throughout the summer. Rose said they’d be on the road for 265 days.

This summer’s program will give them valuable experience, though they don’t have their eyes set on teaching in a classroom.

"We know that we’re going to have to be involved in government," Rose said, noting that, as best as she can recall, only two of California’s representatives are agriculture based.


Robert Hurtado got into FFA at Santa Maria High School because he heard that he could make a profit raising animals. His father raised pigs in Mexico, and both his parents worked in the strawberry fields when they first moved to Santa Maria.

He said that raising pigs here is much different from raising them in Mexico. There, the pigs eat scraps, he said. Here, they eat the right amount of good food and are healthier.

Though he started his FFA experience with caring for animals, his tastes turned a bit more toward technology. From livestock, Hurtado joined judging teams, and then got involved in farm power. He wants to major in bioresource and agricultural engineering (BRAE) at Cal Poly, and hopes to someday concentrate on working with the Global Positioning System (GPS). With GPS, a farmer can coordinate information from three or four satellites to position and then steer a tractor on the field.

"It’s accurate to the centimeter or so," Hurtado said, adding that when he was a freshman, GPS was accurate to about a yard.

He said that farmers can use GPS to get the most out of their land. After taking soil samples from different parts of their fields, they can program a sprayer to add more fertilizer to the soil in certain places. GPS-controlled tractors can also level ground. Through his travels with FFA, Hurtado has seen fields of hay with each stalk the same height because of the uniform soil, watering, and nutrients they receive.

"If you can improve GPS, you can probably farm on hillsides," Hurtado said. He noted that such farming would open up more usable land in Santa Maria Valley, especially with the help of tractors that can disc, or mix up land, on an incline.

"Agriculture is essential to the economy," he said. "It’s not going to go away. And, if you make it more efficient, who knows?"


In the farming world, GPS sprouted up in 1995. The system can pinpoint a pest infestation hot spot, so growers can spray just the infected area without soaking the entire crop, as was standard practice in the past. New methods cut back on the use of chemicals, starting practices that have worked wonders on grower-environmentalist relations–the sort advocated by Rose and Brownell at Righetti. Growers are happy because they save money, and environmentalists celebrate less pollution.

At the moment, GPS systems can run a grower $5,000 to $100,000, depending upon the size of the operation and the accuracy of the machine, as well as all the programming bells and whistles.

Tim Mastin is a BRAE lecturer at Cal Poly, where Hurtado plans to study. The biggest problem with GPS, Mastin said, is the same problem many techno-users face with just about any piece of high-tech equipment. Growers could spend a lot of money on the system, but if they don’t get the right training, all they’ve got is an expensive paperweight.

Though tradition-bound agriculturists may be skeptical of new technology, Mastin said there hasn’t been any opposition to GPS, unlike the protests against genetically modified foods or the toxin-laden pesticides that slammed markets in the 1950s.

When Dr. Mark Shelton of Cal Poly was finishing up his undergraduate education in 1977, debates and protests over pesticides were still raging.

Shelton, Cal Poly College of Agriculture associate dean and advisory committee member to the California Department of Pesticide Regulation director, said the biggest difference between then and now is the modern concept of a global market.

"The bottom line is growers need to understand the global market," Shelton said. "The days of growing your crops and selling [them] down the street are long gone, except for small local growers. For the most part, farmers are looking to make more from their land."

Getting more for their land means that farmers are looking into riskier crops that make more money, like grapes, but also investing in technology that puts money back into their pockets. And they’re going to need workers to operate and maintain that technology. Tomorrow’s farmers will have to have a background in computer science, chemistry, microbiology, biotechnology, and waste treatment. That’s the next step for many of today’s graduating high school seniors.


Not every innovation is as high-tech as automated tractors and smart irrigation systems, though. Farmers looking to the future are increasingly focusing on the past.

Many of the big pesticide companies are returning to natural pest killers, like bacteria and nematodes for their elixirs, and California has issued a large grant for renewable waste research, using cow manure to capture methane and feed it into the energy grid.

Part of the change in pesticide technology is a result of two opposing sides meeting halfway and blending their knowledge.

Today, microbiologists–not chemists–brew pesticides. The handful of giant pesticide companies that have a monopoly on the pest control market are researching which biological agents naturally fight pests. Now, they sell biological-based pesticides. Bacteria, nematodes, and fungi have replaced man-made toxins in many pesticides. Chemical pesticides are still popular, but there’s been a turn from the harsh chemicals.

"There’s been a shift from the school of thought, ‘If it’s Monday, it’s spray day,’" Shelton said. "The toxins are saved for extreme cases, or on an ‘as needed’ basis throughout the season, for example when a strawberry crop is a week from harvesting and comes down with a fungus infection and the grower either sprays them or loses his crop, his livelihood."

According to a study by the Department of Pesticide Regulation, California has seen a steady decrease in the use of pesticides in the past two years.

Another old technology gaining increased attention in the United States is renewable energy waste.

Douglas Williams, a Cal Poly BRAE professor, is one of the state’s leading consultants for renewable waste. He built a renewable waste system at Cal Poly’s dairy unit, which washes the cow manure into a covered pool where organisms from the cow’s stomach convert the manure into methane gas. The plastic pool cover captures the gas and funnels it into pipes that carry it to a generator, feeding into the energy grid. Thanks to the system and the prodigious manure supply from the cows, Cal Poly has reduced its PG&E bill.

Other dairies in the state are also looking to conserve money by producing energy through manure, but this technology isn’t new. In the 1800s, manure was used to light all the city streets in Paris, and Europe has long been using renewable energy, especially in Denmark, where they set aggressive goals to supply 10 percent of the nation’s power through renewable energy by 2010. Currently in the United States, renewable energy provides approximately 1 percent of the nation’s energy.

Europe and the United States moved away from renewable energy when petroleum was discovered because it was cheaper. But in 1973 when the first energy crisis arose, people began to show more interest in returning to renewable resources.

"I see this growing in the future," Williams said. "The ag industry has always produced food and fiber, but it also produces a lot of waste, and it’s increasingly more feasible to convert it into energy."

But Williams doesn’t know how long it will take mainstream America to adopt renewable energy.

"When I first started looking into this in 1973, I thought we’d be further along than we are," Williams said. "There are ups and downs, so it’s hard to predict it being peachy keen in the future. I see a gradual movement toward sustainability, but it’s going to take government intervention and policies."

Williams added that it’s hard for renewable energy to gain much ground when policies change so much from administration to administration. During the Clinton administration, there was more emphasis on alternative energy, but the Bush administration has taken a step backward.

Still, as long as energy prices rise, businesses are going to look for ways to keep money in their pockets, and nine California cattle farms recently invested in renewable waste energy pools. Until now, there were only two farms in the state that used waste for energy, and they established theirs 20 years ago.


As long as technology continues to improve, resources continue to dwindle, the demand for food continues to grow, and farms continue to produce waste, high schools and colleges will continue to prepare students to supply the world with food, clothes, and energy. The Future Farmers of America are rolling up their sleeves, ready to plunge elbow-deep into a pile of compost or a mass of wires.

"We’re all going to influence agriculture," Santa Maria High School’s Robinson said. "Look at us. Look at what we’ve accomplished." Æ

Sun Editor Ryan Miller and New Times Staff Writer Natalie Connelly grow super-intelligent robo-vegetables in a window box. E-mail comments or story ideas to

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