California agricultural business leaders are making the rounds of six California universities this spring in search of the future.

They are not visiting the laboratories and research facilities to find the latest magic chemistry. They are visiting the “classrooms” via a half dozen industry sponsored dinners to recruit the future people of California agriculture.

For many years, through the California Fertilizer Foundation, Western Plant Health Association (WPHH), and now the California Association of Pest Control Advisers (CAPCA), the industry has sponsored dinners to inform and, hopefully, attract graduates into agriculture.

Carl Ueland, president of Actagro Plant Nutrients, Biola, Calif., has attended several dinners or sent key people from his company. He has hired at least one student for his company.

“It is good to connect with students and tell them something about what we do in agriculture and the many opportunities for them,” said Ueland at the recent dinner at California State University, Fresno.

Pam Emery, WPHA programs director, said one of the primary goals of these student-industry connecting dinners is to let students know there are a lot more opportunities than they may think.

“There are careers in marketing, communication, agronomy, finance, law and many other areas besides production agriculture,” she said.

Emery said this year’s round of dinners at Fresno, University of California Davis and Riverside, California State University, Chico, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and Cal Poly Pomona should draw in 250 students.

Joe Middione, chief operating officer for Agrian, a Fresno, Calif., company specializing in providing ag data and reporting services, told students in Fresno, Calif., agriculture is a $36 billion industry that will need experts in the future in fields like food safety, logistics and technology.

His company has hired a student part-time who will eventually become a full-time employee after graduation.

Emery said many companies seek undergraduate summer interns via these dinners, who will be interested in full-time careers after college.

“The idea behind these dinners is to impact the thinking of students. As a former teacher, I understand how much a simple conversation can change a person’s career path,” she said.

Emery said one of the changes she has seen in recent years is that many ag related majors are not from farm and ranch backgrounds.

“We see a lot of students from the city that love the outdoors and want to go into agriculture. However, they do not know what is available beyond production agriculture. This connection to the industry through the dinners can open a lot of doors for these students.”

The California Certified Crop Adviser (CCA) program has its leadership at the dinners as well, to explain how CCAs are licensed and how they specialize in water and nutrient issues.

CAPCA and its new Pathway to PCA program is one of the newest elements in these student dinners.

Pam Douglass, Pathway to PCA program director, is in charge of three of the student dinners while Emery coordinates the other three.

Pathway to PCA was created about a year ago when the industry pledged more than $250,000 to work with high schools, community colleges and universities to encourage students to be on an academic track to become pest control advisers (PCAs).

PCAs must meet rigorous academic requirements to take the PCA state exam. Douglas works with the universities to ensure that students complete the classes necessary to take the PCA exam. Otherwise, they may have to return to school another semester or two to make up required classes.

CAPCA became involved in recruiting future PCAs in the wake of a 2006 industry survey that showed only 17 percent of California PCAs are 44 and younger. Thirty-five percent are 45 to 55 years old. Forty percent are over 55.

An obvious, large void was looming, and the industry put money into hiring Douglass and starting a three-year program to recruit more college students.

Douglass is encouraged by early results. “It is neat to hear students stand up and introduce themselves at these dinners and say they want to become a PCA. We are getting the word out.”

She is also working with students via a Pathway to PCA Facebook page, as well as Twitter. She has 250 on Facebook now. She uses the latest social media to let students know about the dinners, scholarship exams, PCA exam workshops and other areas.

Agricultural leaders also are on the Pathway Facebook.

Ueland encouraged students to pursue both CCA and PCA licenses and keep them current. “CCAs are more attuned to plant nutrition, which is what my company works in. There is a real upside to understanding plant nutrition.”

California’s diverse agriculture can be daunting to a newcomer. Ueland recommended a student learn as much as he or she can about one major crop.

“These dinners reflect a real commitment by the industry. It is a commitment of all WPHA members,” said Emery.

email: hcline@farmpress.com