- (Public Value) UCANR: Promoting economic prosperity in California
- Author: Mike Hsu
When Laura Snell first came to the far northeastern corner of California, she was amazed to find that the Board of Supervisors in Modoc County – where cows outnumber people by a ratio of 13 to 1 – was composed almost entirely of women.
Snell, who arrived in the high desert town of Alturas in 2015 as the University of California Cooperative Extension livestock and natural resources advisor, said she now has a theory as to why.
“It's a great example of the rural and agricultural lifestyle we have here where women get involved in everything from civic organizations to local government,” she said. “In a lot of ways, there isn't a glass ceiling in an area where everyone is needed and most people are wearing multiple hats to keep the community going.”
Snell has worn the “county director” hat for UCCE in Modoc County since 2017, bringing a range of UC Agriculture and Natural Resources programs to local communities. In the subsequent years, she has established herself as one of the region's most prominent and respected voices.
“Laura is a strong leader, an excellent communicator, and extremely knowledgeable in the fields of wild horses, groundwater, livestock and grazing – among many other topics,” said Geri Byrne, vice chair of Modoc County's Board of Supervisors (which is presently 75% female).
Snell's broad base of knowledge – as well as her bachelor's in water science and master's in agronomy, both from the University of Nebraska – have served her well in her dream job in a “one-advisor” county.
“This is what I always wanted to do – know a little bit about a lot of things and be the person who connected people with what they needed, connecting them with information, connecting them with different experts,” Snell explained.
One of her most recent accomplishments is launching UC Master Food Preserver classes in Modoc County this year. About 130 people – in a county of 9,000 – have been served by this UC ANR program, and four are on the cusp of graduating as Modoc's inaugural class of certified Master Food Preservers. The vast majority of program participants, Snell notes, have been women.
“They're not only preserving for their own families; they're also using these tools and harvesting things from their gardens and then having a value-added product to sell at the farmers market and our local food hub,” said Snell, citing one participant who learned how to make and sell celery salt.
The contributions of women to the local economy, county leadership and organizations such as the Modoc County Cattlewomen's group continue to inspire Snell in her work – and in nurturing the next generation of leaders.
An avid participant in 4-H growing up in Story County, Iowa, Snell said one of the most fulfilling aspects of her job is mentoring the interns who come through her office, and presenting them with opportunities to learn and grow in their careers.
It was a personal connection that brought Snell to Modoc. A former Bureau of Land Management director in the county, who happened to be the father of her college friend, encouraged Snell to apply for the advisor position. So she flew from Nebraska to Reno and then made the three-hour drive north for the interview.
“I loved it; I immediately loved it,” Snell recalled. “I called my parents that night and said, ‘If they offer me this job, I'm staying.' This is it – this is what I've always really wanted to do, but not only that: this is the kind of community I've always wanted to live in.”
Snell – along with her canine companion, an Airedale-German Shepherd-Rottweiler mix named Zuri – have become an essential part of the fabric of Modoc County. She has provided guidance on everything from managing wild horses on the Devil's Garden Plateau to optimizing agritourism operations for greater profitability to improving the livelihoods of farmers and ranchers by alleviating regulatory burdens.
“Working in this county and for this county, for the people here, that's what fills my cup,” she said. “That's what is most satisfying about this work.”
And the county, in turn, has been appreciative of Snell's wide-ranging expertise and unflappable demeanor. According to Supervisor Byrne, Snell has been instrumental in taking on complex issues such as wild horses and the Big Valley Groundwater Sustainability Plan – four years in the making and greatly enhanced by Snell's background in water and her passion for bringing science to the people.
“Laura has a ready smile and manages to stay calm in the face of adversity,” Byrne said. “Modoc is very blessed to have such an articulate, knowledgeable, hard-working and personable director.”
- Author: Olivia Henry, UC Davis graduate student intern
As California strives to recover from the pandemic-induced economic slump, Keith Taylor is taking an unconventional approach to economic development. In the world's sixth biggest economy, where do you start? Taylor, who was hired in 2017 as UC Cooperative Extension's sole specialist in community economic development, started by tackling a couple of the state's thorniest sectors: cannabis and utilities.
Participatory research in Mendocino County
In 2016, the passage of Prop. 64 legalizing recreational cannabis ushered in an era of both opportunity and headaches for Mendocino County growers. The county's permitting program has been the source of significant confusion and debate: Between 800 and 1,100 growers have received county permits, but many have not been able to obtain permanent state licenses because of a lack of clarity around the county process and compliance with the California Environmental Quality Act. The burden of uncertainty is one reason why only a fraction of Mendocino growers have pursued licenses, says Taylor, who is based in the Department of Human & Community Development at UC Davis.
While these regulatory battles play out, Taylor says better economic coordination between small growers could buffer them against large capital interests moving into cannabis. Virginia-based Altria, the parent company of Philip Morris USA, is investing in cannabis and filing patents for cannabis-specific vaporizers. Individual legacy growers have the crop experience and market share, Taylor says, but don't have shared institutions through which they can exercise collective power — especially down the value chain in processing, distribution and consumer technology. Taylor believes that creating a small farmer-centric system will involve the creation of more interest groups, associations or cooperatives.
“For too long in agricultural and rural communities, we've encouraged people to do things alone,” Taylor said in an October 2020 presentation to the UC Davis Cannabis and Hemp Research Forums. However, if you look at parts of the world where rural economies do very well, they work together.”
With help from a Cannabis and Hemp Research Center grant, Taylor has been working on a wide-ranging participatory action research project in Mendocino County. Taylor's team — comprised of two faculty members, one post-doctoral researcher, and two student researchers — is producing research publications, policy recommendations and public events about ways that the emerging cannabis industry can support high-quality livelihoods and environments for county residents.
“The more we make folks aware of these good actors, the more likely we are to get challenges to the incumbents in terms of climate mitigation and economic developments,” Taylor said.
West Business Development Center, Economic Development & Financing Corporation and Mendocino County Supervisor John Haschak have been allies in the process so far. Haschak says Taylor brings valuable knowledge, resources and networks to bear on local challenges.
“There's a lot of opportunity for doing this whole new industry in a new way, and I think that's what Dr. Taylor sees too,” Haschak said. “There's a lot of potential here for structuring the industry along the lines of what our community values already are.”
As Taylor's team releases their findings, they intend to host forums at the Hopland Research and Extension Center to help the county harness the legal cannabis sector for economic impact.
Power to the people
Shortly after arriving at UC Davis from Illinois, Taylor published a book about the benefits of community ownership of wind energy in the Midwest. The turmoil surrounding California's largest utility, Pacific Gas & Electric, could have been ripped from the pages of his research. PG&E equipment has ignited half of California's most destructive fires since 2015, and experts pin much of the blame on the company's lack of investment in the grid.
In the months following the 2018 Camp Fire, which burned an area roughly the size of Chicago andkilled85 people, Taylor was one of the first advocates to propose converting PG&E into a user-owned nonprofit cooperative. This conversion would remove the extractive role of investors and give customers a voice in big-picture decisions about the company, Taylor wrote in an op-ed pushing the idea of customer ownership in The Mercury News in February 2019. By December, more than 100 elected officials across 10 counties endorsed the idea. The federal bankruptcy judge overseeing PG&E's case did not endorse the plan, although it's still possible for the state to take over the company under certain conditions. Other attempts to gain local control of PG&E's grid — including San Francisco's bid to buy the city's power lines from the company — also stalled.
Taylor isn't discouraged. He is working closely with the Golden State Power Cooperative, an association of the state's three community-owned electric utility co-ops, to push forward what he calls a “Rural Electrification Act for California broadband.” Taylor often references this New Deal-era law that gave federal loans to rural communities seeking to expand the electrical grid to their area. The act gave rise to the nation's more than 900 electric cooperatives today, including the three in California. With their help, Taylor sees opportunity in legislation or programs that would catalyze community-initiated, community-owned internet services. Plumas-Sierra Rural Electric Cooperative is already bringing broadband to the rough terrain of its mountain customers.
“When you first set foot in California and are exposed to the giant that is PG&E and their influence over policy, you think that it's an obstacle that's too difficult to overcome,” Taylor said. He tries to elevate the visibility of people who are making inroads and recently featured Kevin Short in a webinar about community economic-development innovations.
Short is the general manager of Anza Electric Cooperative in California's high desert and current board president of the Golden State Power Cooperative. He said there are “tremendous opportunities” in the idea of growing cooperative broadband entities, especially with the attention on infrastructure at the state and federal levels. Short said the effort will take some creativity and willingness to depart from existing models: “The old saying among us here is if you've seen one co-op, you've seen one co-op, because it's going to be different everywhere you go.”
In both of these areas — cannabis and utilities — Taylor says his role is networker and facilitator. As the only economic development specialist at UC Agriculture and Natural Resources, he spends a lot of time researching and meeting people to understand where his efforts can be the most strategic. “In order to scale, I've got to go small, root and build and be comfortable with that process,” he said.
Small works for now, but Taylor remembers an associate dean telling him, “You've got a great job, now make it work for 40 million Californians.”
- Author: Pamela Kan-Rice
“We will start a conversation about prospects for new businesses after COVID-19, and entrepreneurial support for existing and new independent business startups,” said Taylor, who is organizing the series.
Webinars will be held on alternate Thursdays at 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. For details and to register for the free events, visit http://ucanr.edu/postpandemiceconomy.
May 20: Utilities of the 21st Century – Kevin Short, CEO of ANZA Electric Cooperative
June 3: Modo Co-operative: A Platform for Carsharing – Patrick Nangle, CEO of Modo Co-operative
June 17: Models of Affordable Workforce Housing – Mikaela Fenton, UC Davis Bradshaw Scholar
- Author: Jeannette E. Warnert
The Forbes AgTech Summit in Salinas in June on “The Future of Food” showcased technology, innovation and ideas that will make agriculture more efficient, productive, profitable and safe. To make these advancements accessible to all Americans, broadband connectivity must reach currently unserved rural areas, speakers said.
“We've got gee-whiz technology that is dependent on broadband,” said U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, the event's keynote speaker. “Rural broadband is a huge issue with transformational capacity to bridge the rural-urban divide.”
A former farmer and governor of Georgia, Perdue said many people who now live in urban areas would welcome the opportunity to populate locations with a slower pace and lower cost of living.
“If they could work from home, if they had connectivity to do their jobs there, many people would choose to live in rural areas,” he said.
Beth Ford, president and CEO of Land O'Lakes, Inc., a $15 billion company headquartered in Minnesota, said about 30 percent of farmers across the country have no access to broadband.
“We have a shared future. Rural communities need to be vibrant,” Ford said. “That starts with broadband.”
The effort to extend broadband access to rural communities in California is a priority for UC Agriculture and Natural Resources vice president Glenda Humiston. While it is potentially expensive to bring internet connectivity to every resident of the state – from the far reaches of Modoc County in the north to remote desert communities near the Mexican border in the south – those communities' lack of high-speed internet is exacting a high economic, medical, social and educational cost.
Humiston was part of a Summit panel that discussed how to cultivate the next generation of leadership in farming. The panelists said future ag industry leaders will need traditional leadership skills – communicating and listening well – but with the growth of agricultural technology, digital literacy is imperative. Using these new high-technology tools will also require broadband coverage, Humiston said.
“Technologies that use artificial intelligence are increasingly dependent on high-speed internet connectivity for real-time data uploads and processing in the cloud,” she noted. “If farms cannot get affordable broadband coverage, or if bandwidth is limited, this will greatly hinder their ability to adopt new technologies.”
On the first day of the summit, nine companies competed for a $200,000 investment from SVG Ventures-THRIVE. The startup companies' ideas exemplified the emerging technologies that are being developed to advance the future of food and agriculture. The winner was Livestock Water Recycling, a Canadian startup that has developed a way to treat large quantities of manure from dairies, hog farms, beef feeding facilities and anaerobic digesters. The system separates the liquid from the barn into solids, nutrients for precise fertilization, and potable water.
“Creating clean water from manure is exciting,” said CEO Karen Schuett in her presentation.
ProteoSense won the Food Safety Award and The Bee Corp took home the Sustainability Award. ProteoSense is a biotechnology company in Columbus, Ohio, which developed a tool for quick, onsite food safety testing. The Bee Corp offers thermal imaging with proprietary algorithms for accurate monitoring of bee hive health without disrupting the insects by opening the hive.
Two competitors partnered with UC to develop their innovations. Tensorfield Agriculture used technology tested at UC Davis in its weeding robot. The robot applies heated canola oil to weeds, killing weeds within an hour without herbicides and without disturbing the soil. FarmX combines software and sensors to measures soil, plant and environmental variables and accurately measure water stress. The company counts UC Cooperative Extension emeritus advisor Blake Sanden on its team.
The key role of land grant universities like the University of California in developing, testing and implementing agricultural technologies was noted frequently during the Forbes AgTech Summit.
“The advantage of basic and applied ag research, and delivery by the extension service is what's made the U.S. a superpower of food in the world,” said secretary Purdue. “We're on the cusp of regeneration of agriculture and digitization of agriculture. We have the ability, with land grant universities and extension service, to get on the ground floor of understanding new technology.”
Tara Vander Dussen, environmental scientist and farmer at the 6,000-cow New Mexico Milkmaid dairy, also advised, “If you need sustainability advice for your dairy, go to your land grant university.”
UC ANR was a sponsor at the partner level of the Forbes AgTech Summit, which brings together bright minds and innovative institutions from two key parts of California's economic engine — agriculture and technology.