© 2024 KVPR | Valley Public Radio - White Ash Broadcasting, Inc. :: 89.3 Fresno / 89.1 Bakersfield
89.3 Fresno | 89.1 Bakersfield
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

In the land of peaches and oranges, California farmworkers are learning skills for a new future

Professor Michael Ornelas lectures about Ohm's Law and about transformers during a workshop for farm workers at Reedley College.
Esther Quintanilla
/
KVPR
Professor Michael Ornelas lectures about Ohm's Law and about transformers during a workshop for farm workers at Reedley College.

REEDLEY, Calif. – In March, the country’s largest stone fruit producer laid off thousands of workers in the San Joaquin Valley.

The layoffs came months after the Fresno-based company, Prima Wawona, declared bankruptcy and began selling off its land to bidders.

The collapse of such a giant operation sparked a major question about the labor force that fuels California’s $50 billion agricultural industry – are workers prepared for more industry disruptions?

Inside an electrical engineering lab at Reedley College, in southeast Fresno County, one answer to that question is taking shape.

On a recent Friday morning, Esteven Sanchez is concentrating as he works on a circuit board. He’s trying to arrange wires on a transformer so it triggers a loud horn. But he’s struggling.

“I don’t know what’s wrong with it yet,” he says in Spanish. “The power isn’t turning on, it’s not working.”

He’s been at this for more than an hour, and still no horn. Eventually, he thinks he’s found the problem, and calls the professor, Michael Ornelas, over to check.

Professor Michael Ornelas and student Esteven Sanchez double check wires on a transformer during a workshop at Reedley College.
Esther Quintanilla
/
KVPR
Professor Michael Ornelas and student Esteven Sanchez double check wires on a transformer during a workshop at Reedley College.

But Ornelas doesn’t actually see anything wrong. He presses the button, and a loud horn reverberates through the room. It turned out Sanchez had it right all along. Laughter erupts at the workstation.

This task was simply a training exercise, but it’s crucial training that Sanchez may well use in the future, he says.

“Although it’s easy, I have to be focused. One slip up and I’ll be stuck,” Sanchez acknowledges.

Sanchez, 22, and 11 others were given the chance to participate in the workshop because they were among the thousands laid off from Prima Wawona. He worked at the farm company for two years.

“I was sad to see it fold,” he says. “It was a good job, a good company.”

Prima Wawona grew, packaged and distributed peaches, nectarines, plums and apricots across the country. It was formed in 2019 by a merger between Gerawan Farming and Wawona Packing. But recent financial trouble left the company hundreds of millions of dollars in debt.

One company that was part owner of Prima Wawona told bankruptcy court the company allegedly had “massive overspending, an utter lack of business judgment, self-interested transactions,” which contributed to its demise.

But other factors – like automation and climate change – are also hitting the farming industry and its workers.

Leadership at the company had already been developing an upskill training program for its labor force. As soon as Prima Wawona crashed this spring, the training program kicked in with the help from the Fresno County Economic Development Corporation, an organization that strives to expand and assist businesses in the region.

“You have to invest in technology, but you also have to bring your labor force up to that technology,” says Richard Avila, a former manager at Prima Wawona. “You can buy all the robots you want, but somebody's got to be able to program and troubleshoot, and do all those things.”

And regional industry leaders and academic experts have taken notice.

Carving new ground in agriculture

Since 2022, cities, colleges and industry groups in the Valley have been developing a roadmap for the future of ag work. They see it as a more mechanized and technological industry. The need to think of new strategies for the future caught the attention of federal agencies who have devoted millions of dollars to projects.

Federal and county funding are helping bring workshops like the one Sanchez has taken part in to help workers stay afloat with new skills and job opportunities.

“It is meant for farmworkers,” says Professor Kaomine Vang, who directs the AgTech Innovation Center at Reedley College. “It's very science and technology based. And a lot of it, [farmworkers] see it in the field. They just want to know a deeper understanding of it.”

Students Esteven Sanchez and Juan Manuel rearrange wires on a transformer during a workshop at Reedley College.
Esther Quintanilla
/
KVPR
Students Esteven Sanchez and Juan Manuel rearrange wires on a transformer during a workshop at Reedley College.

Ornelas, the professor who led the recent workshop, says understanding the scientific basics helps the students with hands-on exercises “to meet the theories and concepts in real world situations.”

The desire to keep learning is echoed by those who have so far taken part in the workshops. Pedro Ramirez is 60 and worked at Prima Wawona for more than 30 years. He said he’s not ready to stop learning.

“Learning to adapt is just one part of being in the industry,” he says. “My grandparents always said to learn something new every day.”

Those who participate in the programs are certified when they complete the courses, and they even get help with filling out resumes and then searching for jobs. The programs also pay for the gas it takes workers to attend the lectures.

Vang says these incentives ensure students can be highly engaged.

The future brings uncertainty, opportunity

But there are still lingering doubts about the future of ag work for those treading new territory.

The growing use of robotics, drones and other new devices in farms – where hand labor is often responsible for picking peaches, oranges and grapes – can be daunting for laborers.

Ricardo Castorena from the Binational of Central California, a Fresno-based organization that provides resources to farmworkers, says the rapidly changing landscape of farmwork can leave some feeling like they’re being left behind.

He says every year, there are more changes in the field, and for some, it may mean less work.

“I think the fear for most is change and no opportunity to change,” Castorena says. “That is really, truly the fear.”

In Sanchez’s case – along with his classmates – he is starting to prepare for the future sooner rather than later.

Transformers and circuits are part of a hands-on electrical engineering lab at Reedley College geared toward farmworkers.
Esther Quintanilla
/
KVPR
Transformers and circuits are part of a hands-on electrical engineering lab at Reedley College geared toward farmworkers.

Sanchez says he hopes to enroll in more courses that focus on electrical engineering. He’s young, just 23, and wants to develop as many skills as possible, he says.

“[Electrical engineering] is what I want to study, so this class is helping me a lot to move forward in my career,” Sanchez says.

He recently graduated from the workshop and quickly landed a job at Moonlight Packing, one of the companies that bought up a piece of Prima Wowona’s land. He’s now using some of the skills he learned from the workshop in his daily work in the packing house.

“My mom always taught me to learn from every situation that comes my way,” Sanchez says. He adds, even though there were layoffs from his old job, something came of it.

“I wouldn’t have taken the class. I’m grateful for the experience,” Sanchez says.

Corrected: May 16, 2024 at 4:01 PM PDT
This story has been updated to correctly identify the Fresno County Economic Development Corporation as a main funder of the training program.
Esther Quintanilla reports on diverse communities for KVPR through the Central Valley News Collaborative, which includes The Fresno Bee, Vida en el Valle, KVPR and Radio Bilingüe.