In the shadow of Silicon Valley, a new crop of tech-savvy farmers

Jacob Martinez, founder of Digital NEST, is teaching young Latinos the tech skills they’ll need in a new era of agriculture.

 

The 90-mile drive south from Silicon Valley to Watsonville, California, runs mostly through coastal forest and along Highway 1, with intermittent views of the Pacific Ocean. Then the road turns inland, and the redwoods and briny air give way to the aromatic strawberry fields of the Pajaro Valley.

Though the two communities are geographically close, they feel very far apart. Silicon Valley is an overcrowded center of technological innovation, made up of mostly white, affluent residents, with a median income of over $90,000. The quiet town of Watsonville is 81 percent Hispanic, with a median income of $44,000, and is culturally and economically defined by its strawberry crop.

Jennifer Magana and her older sister grew up watching their parents work the fields for major companies like Driscoll’s, as they came home exhausted every night, only to get up and do it again the next morning. Magana, now a high school senior, has no desire to labor in the fields. But she also doesn’t want to leave her family, friends and the culture she adores. “I want to stay here and work here in my community,” she says.

Many of her classmates are grappling with the same struggle. Here, where the unemployment rate is 9 percent and 20 percent of people live in poverty, career decisions are complicated by a lack of access to resources like wireless Internet, computers and the wealth of informational and educational tools those technologies offer. Too many Watsonville young people drop out of school, get stuck in low-paying jobs, or leave town to find work elsewhere.

Jacob Martinez hopes to change that pattern by connecting Watsonville’s farming industry to Silicon Valley resources. The 38-year-old California native looks like a young entrepreneur, with his ever-present laptop, thick rectangular glasses and gray hoodie. A 12-year resident of Watsonville, he founded Digital NEST, which stands for “Nurturing Entrepreneurial Skills with Technology,” in 2014 to cultivate technology career centers in California’s most vulnerable communities. “It’s an economic justice issue,” Martinez says. “You have a huge demand and need for technology talent, but this segment of the population that’s not represented at all.”

Jacob Martinez, founder of Digital NEST, talks with volunteer instructors Juan Morales, Stephanie Barraza and Ximena Ireta, as they plan for an upcoming workshop.
Glen McDowell

Digital NEST gives people like Magana a chance to ask questions, gain new skills and learn about her post-graduation options. “It’s awful for me to try to do work outside of school or look for opportunities,” Magana says; her family owns a clunky computer and her school lacks adequate equipment. But at Digital NEST, she finds bright, open working spaces, comfy furniture, whiteboard, and brand new laptops she can borrow. It’s open all week, from noon to 7 p.m., Monday through Friday, offering workshops and lectures on a variety of subjects, including Web development, videography, social media, and graphic design, to people aged 12 to 24.

Watsonville, with its strip malls, school sports fields, farms and warehouses, has little to offer in the way of art or culture. Crime rates are high, particularly gang violence. Young people are starving for something productive to do. “There’s a lot of youth that never realized they have an opportunity here,” Magana says.  

Martinez designed Digital NEST to train local youth for careers that meld their agricultural heritage with the high-tech modern world. Experts teach classes on coding and Web design, and Martinez connects students with entrepreneur networks through speaker series and trips to Silicon Valley.  Ideally, they’ll become eligible for higher-paying jobs with food and agriculture companies in their own community.

Thirty-one percent of Watsonville’s population is under the age of 18, in stark contrast to the average American farmer, who is 58. Food and agriculture companies are in serious need of a younger, tech-savvy workforce. At the same time, Watsonville, like other farm towns in the Central Coast and Valley, faces the challenge of climate change and extensive drought. “They’re any farmers’ challenges,” Martinez says. “Lack of water in California, lack of labor workforce or issues with immigration, not being able to attract a new young generation.”

Some California farmers have switched to new crops or left agriculture altogether. But others are turning to technological solutions, such as predictive analytics software, sensors and robotics, to better understand weather patterns, irrigation techniques and soil health, and to reduce their costs and increase productivity. Food and agriculture technology startups are now a $4.6 billion industry, and huge corporations like Google and Monsanto are investing heavily in farming data projects. Companies are tackling everything from reducing food waste to building underground farms to creating lab-grown meatless meat. Farming operations need system analysts, robotics and automation technicians, and GPS and GIS operators.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that nearly 60,000 high-skilled jobs open annually in the food, agriculture, and environment fields, with almost a third of those requiring science, technology, math or engineering skills. The nation’s yearly 35,000 college graduates with degrees in agriculture-related fields can’t keep up with the demand. And yet, the movement to improve computer science education tends to focus on urban centers like San Francisco and New York City. Very few programs reach out to rural populations like Watsonville, widening the gap between places that desperately need a new industry’s economic boost, and the people who reap the rewards of such a tech boom.

“Forty kids in San Francisco — nothing is going to change,” Martinez says. “But if I can get 40 kids in this community good paying jobs, you could see the economic benefit of that.”

 

Students use the free Wi-Fi in the lounge of Digital NEST in Watsonville, California, where many homes are without computers and Internet.
Glen McDowell

After years of picking fruit, Magana’s father returned to college to get an agronomy degree, and now he helps his daughter search for career possibilities in agriculture. “He’s proud of me for pursuing the thing he loves,” Magana says. “Technology is still new to me, but now I have a place to go figure it out.”

Digital NEST’s goal isn’t to get young people like Magana off the farms and into the offices of Apple or Twitter. Rather, it’s seeking to invest more money and resources into local economies like Watsonville, and thereby lower dropout, crime, and poverty rates.

Martinez was drawn to Watsonville because he knows from experience the obstacles young Latinos face in pursuing meaningful careers, particularly in science and technology. Born in Los Angeles, Martinez spent part of his childhood in Mexico City before his family moved to Dallas, where his father worked as an accountant. They were one of the few families of color in their affluent neighborhood. When Martinez graduated high school, he went to San Francisco to study environmental science and technology. He bounced around colleges in the Bay Area, but felt isolated in advanced science and math courses, as one of the few minority students.

In his mid-20s, Martinez earned an ecology and evolutionary biology degree from UC Santa Cruz. He was engaged and in debt, but he wanted to pursue teaching science and technology to members of underrepresented communities. In 2006, he became a project coordinator for ETR Associates, a Scotts Valley-based nonprofit that provides educational resources to schools. His project focused on encouraging more Hispanic girls to study technology. ETR’s programs proved successful, securing funding from the National Science Foundation. But Martinez, who eventually became project director, still saw a gaping hole in the system: Children lacked computers at home, and they worked with outdated machines at school. “We weren’t fostering creativity,” he says. “It was the complete opposite of the tech industry.”

So in 2013, he decided to build his own hub for young people, something that would be modeled after modern tech companies. When Martinez first opened Digital NEST, the locals had doubts about his motives — perhaps it was merely a ploy to buy up precious cropland to build the next Amazon distribution center. He built trust by making himself accessible to the agriculture community. Every month, he met with farmers to better understand the issues they faced, and he launched a series of events to bring together agronomists and technologists in the region.

“Companies would love to have local, talented people, and that would be the best for them,” says Jess Brown, director of the Santa Cruz County Farm Bureau. “People weren’t getting the education that was needed to move into agriculture, because it has changed so much.”

After two years, in February 2016, Digital NEST moved into a 4,500-square-foot building in downtown Watsonville. It buzzes with energy: Members experiment with cameras, tap away on keyboards, bounce from meeting to meeting, and collaborate on projects. Up to 50 kids swing through each day. The program, which is funded mostly by foundation grants, is doing so well that Martinez plans to open a second branch in nearby Salinas in January 2017.

“Programs like this address the issue of getting (youth) to work in Watsonville,” Brown says.  “We can see that we need more programs like what Martinez is offering young people.”

Companies like Driscoll’s, meanwhile, are eager to work with tech leaders like Martinez. “Finding ways to increase the technical capacity and exposure in the communities we work in will be important as we look to the future,” says Frances Dillard, Driscoll’s marketing director. “We have to be prepared to support these companies and have the workforce that can keep it going.”

Martinez likes to remind his students that farmers were the original entrepreneurs — and that their families, who sell tamales out of truck beds or run landscaping or housekeeping businesses, are trailblazers too. “I’d put them up against any affluent community any day,” Martinez says. “They want to care for their community, want to support their family, they have grit. They are true entrepreneurs: They don’t have a safety net to catch them if their new endeavor fails.”

Lyndsey Gilpin is an HCN editorial intern.

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