Planting Seeds - Food & Farming News from CDFA

UN Food Systems Summit 2021 – from AgriPulse

By Marshall Matz

Welcome to 2021! Hopefully, we will see the end of a terrible health crisis that has claimed so many lives around the world. The Executive Director of the World Food Program, David Beasley, has predicted that hunger will take more lives than the COVID-19 pandemic. This will put an even brighter spotlight on the 2021 UN Food Systems Summit.

The UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, announced on World Food Day, October 16, 2019 that he would host a Food Systems Summit in 2021 with the aim of maximizing the co-benefits of a food systems approach consistent with UN 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. He then announced two months later on December 16, 2019 the appointment of Dr. Agnes Kalibata of Rwanda as his Special Envoy for the 2021 Food Systems Summit.

Dr. Kalibata had been the Minister of Agriculture in Rwanda and is currently the President of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). AGRA, headquartered in Kenya, is committed to growing Africa out of poverty by focusing on some dozen or more priority countries. Kalibata has a PhD in Agriculture from the University of Massachusetts. She was the 2019 recipient of the National Academy of Sciences prestigious Public Welfare Medal for her work to drive Africa’s agricultural transformation through modern sciences and effective policy, thereby improving livelihoods of small farmers.

Having grown up in a refugee camp on a small farm bought for her family by the United Nations’ Refugee Agency, Kalibata understands the struggles of a significant proportion of the world’s poor. Kalibata’s work as a minister gave her a chance to participate in the shaping of SDGs and now she is charged with helping the world step up its action towards coming through on SDGS in the next ten years.

What is the Food Systems Summit as defined by the United Nations?

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres will convene a Food Systems Summit as part of the Decade of Action to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030. The Summit will launch bold new actions to deliver progress on all 17 SDGs, each of which relies to some degree on healthier, more sustainable, and equitable food systems. The second of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals is to “End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture.” The Secretary General was concerned that we were not on track to meet that objective, among the other SDGs, and in fact the numbers are moving further away from that goal over the last five years.

The Secretary General also recognizes that the way we produce food, and how and what we do between the farm and fork contributes to emissions, waste and is not sustainable. But he also recognized that the solutions to these challenges can be found in what we can do differently in our food system; hence the 2021 UN Food Systems Summit.

The Summit will attempt to awaken the world to the fact that we all must work together to transform the way the world produces, consumes and thinks about food. It is a summit for everyone everywhere – a people’s summit- each of us has something to say and each of us can do something that can make a difference.

It is also a solutions summit that will require everyone, and all countries, to take action to transform the world’s food systems. There are times when making incremental steps towards a shared vision seems enough, but we are running out of time to correct course on our food systems. So yes, this must be a solutions summit and they must be outrageously ambitious in their actions.

The point people in the US Government for the Summit have been Under Secretary Ted McKinney and Ambassador Kip Tom, staffed by the Foreign Agriculture Service at USDA and USAID. Presumably, the people who are confirmed for those positions in the Biden Administration will continue to be our leaders for the UN Summit.

Guided by five “Action Tracks”, the Summit will bring together key players from the worlds of science, business, policy, healthcare, and academia, as well as farmers, indigenous people, youth organizations, consumer groups, environmental activists, and other key stakeholders. Before, during and after the Summit, these actors will come together to bring about tangible, positive changes to the world’s food systems.

What does the Summit aim to achieve?

The Summit process aims to deliver the following outcomes:

  1. Generate significant action and measurable progress towards the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in the face of COVID-19. The Summit will attempt to identify solutions and leaders and issue a call for action at all levels of the food system, including national and local governments, companies, and citizens.
  2. Raise awareness and elevate public discussion about how reforming our food systems can help us all to achieve the SDGs by implementing reforms that are good for people and planet.
  3. Develop principles to guide governments and other stakeholders looking to leverage their food systems to support the SDGs. These principles will set an optimistic and encouraging vision in which food systems play a central role in building a fairer, more sustainable world.
  4. Create a system of follow-up and review to ensure that the Summit’s outcomes continue to drive new actions and progress. This system will allow for the sharing of experiences, lessons, and knowledge; it will also measure and analyze the Summit’s impact.

Why food systems?

The term “food system” refers to the constellation of activities involved in producing, processing, transporting and consuming food. Food systems touch every aspect of human existence. The health of our food systems profoundly affects the health of our bodies, as well as the health of our environment, our economies, and our cultures. When they function well, food systems have the power to bring us together as families, communities, and nations.

Too many of the world’s food systems are fragile, unexamined, and vulnerable to collapse, as millions of people around the globe have experienced first-hand during the COVID-19 crisis. When our food systems fail, the resulting disorder threatens our education, health, and economy, as well as human rights, peace, and security. As in so many cases, those who are already poor or marginalized are the most vulnerable.

Scientists agree that transforming our food systems is among the most powerful ways to change course and make progress towards all 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Rebuilding the food systems of the world will also enable us to answer the UN Secretary-General’s call to “build back better” from COVID-19. We are all part of the food system, and so we all must come together to bring about the transformation that the world needs.

There will be a series of events planned in 2021 to further the process. A web site has been established to help interested parties follow this dynamic process.

There are Food Systems Summit Dialogues taking place across all countries in the world, giving all actors an opportunity to shape pathways that will lead to equitable and sustainable food systems by 2030. These are in part facilitated by Dr. David Nabarro, World Food Prize Laureate, and the World Health Organization’s special envoy for Covid-19. But the Summit is clear that many of these Dialogues will be country-led and other Independent Food Systems Summit Dialogues are open to be organized by any community and constituency that takes an interest. You can find more information on the dialogues and how to convene your own at the following website:

You can find the latest working papers of the Scientific Group chaired by Dr. Joachim von Braun on the Summit website:

All these give you and I, as ordinary citizens, a chance to give our views and contribute our ideas and innovations through online dialogues and platforms.

A pre-Summit will take place in Rome, Italy in July 2021 followed by the Summit to be held in conjunction with the UN General Assembly sometime during the week of September 20. Finally, it is important to point out that this Summit has been convened by the Secretary General and he alone will issue any report. It will not have to be negotiated by the UN Member countries or passed by the Security Council.

Marshall Matz is the Chairman of OFW Law in Washington, D.C.

Link to story on AgriPulse web site

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Video Public Service Announcement on COVID-19 vaccines with California Surgeon General Dr. Nadine Burke Harris

Link to

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CDFA welcomes Deputy Secretary and Chief Counsel Haig Baghdassarian

California Department of Food and Agriculture Secretary Karen Ross swears in the department’s new Deputy Secretary and Chief Counsel Haig Baghdassarian. Baghdassarian has been Principal for the Law Office of Haig Baghdassarian since 2009. He was Chief Legislative Consultant for the Armenian National Committee of America – Western Region from 2013 to 2018, Contract Attorney for Meyers Nave LLP in 2008, and Legislative Coordinator for the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission in 2007. Baghdassarian also served as a Deputy City Attorney in the San Francisco City Attorney’s Office from 2004 to 2006 and as a San Francisco Human Rights Commissioner from 2001 to 2004. 

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Proposed budget for 2021-’22 – highlights for CDFA

For CDFA, Governor Newsom’s proposed budget represents an important step in facilitating economic recovery after the tumult of 2020. And of course, we’re still facing those challenges, but we’re also leaning forward to embrace what’s ahead.

Like all business and life in California, the agricultural sector suffered disruptions and lost markets but rapidly pivoted to protect workers, divert food without markets to food banks and other charities, and find innovative ways to meet new local market opportunities. Agriculture has an essential role to play in our economic recovery as well as the health and well-being of Californians. 

This budget includes strategic investments to support California’s agriculture industry as it addresses continued challenges and rapid innovation while also advancing the state’s climate resilience objectives.

Climate Smart Agriculture

Building on California’s leadership in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and protecting communities and the environment from climate impacts, the Budget includes investments to support the agriculture industry in its advancement of Climate Smart Agriculture.

Healthy Soils Program—$30 million from the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund for the Department of Food and Agriculture to provide grants for on-farm soil management practices that sequester carbon.

FARMER—$170 million from Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund for the Air Resources Board to provide funding that supports the replacement of agricultural harvesting equipment, agricultural pump engines, tractors, and other equipment used in agricultural operations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Climate Catalyst Fund—$50 million from General Fund to support Climate Smart Agriculture loans to advance projects that may include but are not limited to: methane reduction; equipment replacement; water efficiency; healthy soils; circular economies; on-farm bioenergy; energy efficiency for food processing; and renewable energy systems and energy storage for agricultural operations.

Water Efficiency and Sustainable Groundwater 

The Budget proposes $100 million General Fund to support water efficiency projects and a transition to sustainable groundwater, including $50 million from the Administration’s early-action package for this issue.

Sustainable Groundwater Management Act Grants—$60 million from the General Fund to the Department of Water Resources for grants to support economic mitigation planning and groundwater implementation projects across critically over-drafted basins.

State Water Efficiency and Enhancement Program Grants (SWEEP)—$40 million from the General Fund to the Department of Food and Agriculture to provide incentives that help farmers reduce irrigation water use and reduce greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture pumping.


Integrated Pest Management Programs – To facilitate sustainable pest management, the budget includes $3.75 million for the Department of Agriculture to continue the development of Integrated Pest Management (IPM) strategies, including the Biologically Integrated Farming Systems (BIFS) grant program and others.

These programs support non-conventional pest management technologies for specialty crops, research exotic pests that are likely to arrive in California and proactively identify mitigation strategies, and provide outreach for biologically integrated plant-based farming systems that reduce pesticide use.

The budget also includes $8 million for CDFA to expand CSU and UC research and extension capacity for IPM through cooperative extension.

COVID Impact: Economic Recovery

Farm to School – The budget includes $10 million from the General Fund to continue the Office of Farm to Fork’s Farm to School Program. This funding will build upon the success of the pilot program established in the 2020 Budget Act and continue to support California farmers and expand healthy food access by providing grants to schools to establish programs that coordinate local and California Grown food procurement and utilization in school meals

This will also support food and agriculture education in classrooms and cafeterias through experiential learning opportunities in school gardens, on farms, and other culinary and agricultural pathways.

Small and Mid-Size Farm Support – Recognizing that many sectors in agriculture are struggling, the budget includes $6.7 million from the General Fund to contract with the University of California Cooperative Extension to provide direct technical assistance and grants to technical assistance providers as well as small, mid-sized and underserved farmers.

These resources will help farmers with business planning and navigating regulatory compliance, and will help them access and leverage additional state and federal funds.

Impact Assessment and Alignment of Regulatory Reporting Requirements for Agriculture – The budget includes $6 million from the General Fund for regulatory alignment and efficiencies, including $4 million to engage a consultant to evaluate and implement the alignment of regulatory reporting activities across state agencies. The objective is to reduce unnecessary burdens to farmers and ranchers in their efforts to meet regulatory compliance.

There is also $2 million to support a business assessment for the establishment of a unified licensing portal at CDFA.

Public Health

California’s Implementation of the Food Safety Modernization Act – The Budget includes $8.7 million in Federal Fund authority and 24 positions to continue and expand the Department of Food and Agriculture’s Produce Safety Program.

The Food Safety Modernization Act established federal science-based minimum standards for the safe growing, harvesting, packing, and holding of fruits and vegetables grown for human consumption. The Act enables the United States Food and Drug Administration to better protect public health by strengthening the food safety system and focusing more on preventing food safety issues rather than reacting to problems after they occur.

Network of California Fairs

Recognizing the significant economic hardship of fairs during COVID-19, the ’21-’22 budget includes $50 million from the General Fund to continue supporting state-affiliated fairgrounds’ operational costs while the state continues to evaluate alternative business models.

The budget also includes $10 million from the General Fund to support fairground deferred maintenance, with a priority on fairgrounds that are used to support emergency operations. This is in addition to $40.3 million from the 2020 Budget Act to support fairs that are projected to have insufficient reserves to pay legally mandated costs that may be incurred during the state civil service layoff process.

The Newsom Administration is also in the process of evaluating alternative business and governance structures to enable fairs to operate more efficiently, meet local community needs, and serve public health and safety roles in the state’s emergency response system.

Cannabis Consolidation 

In an effort to improve access to licensing and simplify and centralize regulatory oversight of commercial cannabis activity, the budget includes $153.8 million from the Cannabis Control Fund to reflect the consolidation of the three state licensing authorities into a single Department of Cannabis Control within the Business, Consumer Services, and Housing Agency on July 1, 2021.  

This proposal seeks to further the goals of legalization and regulation by creating a single point of contact for cannabis licensees, local governments, and other stakeholders.  

Further, centralizing the licensing programs’ enforcement efforts will result in more effective enforcement that better protects public health, safety and lands, and will make it more costly and inefficient to participate in the illicit cannabis industry. 

Read more in this budget link at the Department of Finance web site

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Governor Newsom Proposes 2021-22 State Budget

Prioritizes funding to get all Californians vaccinated, provides direct relief to Californians facing job loss and eviction, doubles down on supports to small businesses and invests in safety and equity for all students

Governor Gavin Newsom today submitted his 2021-22 State Budget proposal to the Legislature – a $227.2 billion fiscal blueprint that provides funding for immediate COVID-19 response and relief efforts where Californians need it most while making investments for an equitable, inclusive and broad-based economic recovery.

With the end of the COVID-19 pandemic in sight, the Governor’s Budget prioritizes key actions that will urgently help the California families and businesses impacted most. It proposes $372 million to speed up administration of vaccines across all of California’s 58 counties, bolstering the state’s all-hands-on-deck approach to swift and safe vaccine distribution. It also includes a $14 billion investment in our economic recovery and the Californians who most need relief – those who have lost their jobs or small businesses, or are facing eviction – advancing direct cash supports of $600 to millions of Californians through the Golden State Stimulus, extending new protections and funding to help keep people in their homes and investing in relief grants for small businesses. As part of this investment in California’s future, the Budget intensifies the Governor’s commitment to equity in and for our school communities, reflected by the highest levels of school funding – approximately $90 billion total – in California’s history. The commitment includes investments to target the inequitable impacts of the pandemic on schools and families, including $2 billion to support and accelerate safe returns to in-person instruction, $4.6 billion to help students bounce back from the impacts of the pandemic and $400 million for school-based mental health services.

In addition to these measures to support Californians through the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Budget also advances long-term strategies for an equitable, broad-based economic recovery so the state can emerge from the pandemic stronger than before. Building on actions the state has taken to support California’s businesses throughout the pandemic, including emergency aid and regulatory relief, the 2021-22 State Budget makes investments across sectors and proposes supports for businesses of all sizes, including $777.5 million for a California Jobs Initiative, which focuses on job creation and retention, regional development, small businesses and climate innovation.

The Budget recognizes how COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted Californians who were already struggling before the pandemic, exacerbating decades-long inequalities. Accordingly, it works to expand opportunity for some of the hardest hit Californians and help them get ahead. The Budget also proposes one-time and ongoing investments totaling $353 million to support California’s workers as they adapt to changes in the economy brought about by COVID-19. It lifts up proven, demand-driven workforce strategies like apprenticeship and High-Road Training Partnerships and advances collaboration between higher education and local workforce partners.

“In these darkest moments of the COVID-19 pandemic, this Budget will help Californians with urgent action to address our immediate challenges and build towards our recovery,” said Governor Newsom. “As always, our Budget is built on our core California values of inclusion, economic growth and a brighter future for all. The Budget makes progress towards the goal I set when taking office to harness California’s spirit of innovation and resilience and put the California Dream within reach of more Californians. I look forward to working with the Legislature to enact these critical immediate and longer-term priorities for our state for the 40 million who call the Golden State home.”

This Budget is built on the prudent fiscal management that has helped the state weather the COVID-19 Recession in 2020, and with an improved revenue forecast entering 2021. Through the end of this pandemic and beyond, it advances the Governor’s sustained focus on increasing opportunity through education, including early education; increasing the affordability of health care and housing, and effective governance.

The Budget makes new proposals to address the affordability of health care and housing, and supports the increase in the state’s minimum wage to $14 per hour. The Budget includes significant new strategies to reduce the impacts of climate change, with focused investments to support the state’s zero-emission vehicle goals and an additional $1 billion to address a comprehensive wildfire and forest resilience strategy.

Finally, the Budget promotes effective government with additional investments to improve the state’s ability to respond rapidly to emergencies and continues the critical work to improve government efficiency and bring government services into the digital age.

The Budget reflects $34 billion in budget resiliency – budgetary reserves and discretionary surplus – including: $15.6 billion in the Proposition 2 Budget Stabilization Account (Rainy Day Fund) for fiscal emergencies; $3 billion in the Public School System Stabilization Account; an estimated $2.9 billion in the state’s operating reserve; and $450 million in the Safety Net Reserve. The state is operating with a $15 billion surplus.

The Budget continues progress in paying down the state’s retirement liabilities and reflects $3 billion in additional payments required by Proposition 2 in 2021-22 and nearly $6.5 billion over the next three years. In addition, the improved revenue picture allows the state to delay $2 billion in scheduled program suspensions for one year.

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USDA seeks members for advisory committee on urban farming

USDA News Release

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is seeking members for a new advisory committee on urban agriculture, part of a broader effort to focus on the needs of urban farmers. The 12-person committee will advise the Secretary of Agriculture on the development of policies and outreach relating to urban, indoor, and other emerging agricultural production practices as well as identify any barriers to urban agriculture.

“We are looking forward to a robust group of nominees to serve on this important new advisory committee,” said Bill Northey, USDA’s Under Secretary for Farm Production and Conservation. “This group will underscore USDA’s commitment to all segments of agriculture and has the potential to support innovative ways to increase local food production in urban environments.”

USDA is seeking nominations for individuals representing a broad spectrum of expertise, including:

  • Four agricultural producers (two agricultural producers in an urban area or urban cluster and two agricultural producers who use innovative technology).
  • Two representatives from an institution of higher education or extension program.
  • One representative of a nonprofit organization, which may include a public health, environmental or community organization.
  • One representative of business and economic development, which may include a business development entity, a chamber of commerce, a city government or a planning organization.
  • One individual with supply chain experience, which may include a food aggregator, wholesale food distributor, food hub or an individual who has direct-to-consumer market experience.
  • One individual from a financing entity.
  • Two individuals with related experience or expertise in urban, indoor and other emerging agriculture production practices, as determined by the Secretary.

Any interested person or organization may nominate qualified individuals for membership. Self-nominations are also welcome.

Nominations should include a cover letter, resume and a background form. Nomination packages must be submitted by mail or email by March 5, 2021. They should be addressed to Ronald Harris, Designated Federal Officer, Director of Outreach and Partnerships, Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), Department of Agriculture, 1400 Independence Avenue, S.W., Room 6006-S, Washington, D.C. 20250, or emailed to

The 2018 Farm Bill established the Office of Urban Agriculture and Innovative Production and directed USDA to form this advisory committee as well as make other advancements related to urban agriculture. It is led by the NRCS and works in partnership with numerous USDA agencies that support urban agriculture. Its mission is to encourage and promote urban, indoor and other emerging agricultural practices, including community composting and food waste reduction. More information is available in this notice on the Federal Register or at Additional assistance is available at Ask.USDA.Gov or by calling (202) 720-2791.

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Is farming with reclaimed water the solution to a drier future? From Civil Eats

Reclaimed water like this is used at a small farm in Contra Costa County. Photo from Civil Eats

By Cirrus Wood


On a Saturday in late October, Carolyn Phinney stands hip-deep in a half acre of vegetables, at the nucleus of what will one day be 15 acres of productive farmland.

“You can’t even see the pathways,” she says, surrounded by the literal fruits of her labors. The patch is a wealth of herbs, tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, kale, winter squash, and zucchini. So much zucchini—fruits the size of bowling pins hidden under leaves as big as umbrellas. “Zucchini plants are supposed to be 30 inches across. Ours are 8 feet,” she says. “Everything looks like it’s on steroids.”

Phinney is the farmer behind CoCo San Sustainable Farm of Martinez, California, a farm built on reclaimed land, using reclaimed water, and started with a simple mission: to get kids to eat more vegetables.

In 2010, Phinney learned local school districts served pizza more often than salad because produce cost four times more than cheese and bread. She set out to make vegetables in her county more affordable—or free, if possible. The effort has paid off. Since May of this year, Phinney has grown and donated more than 13,000 pounds of produce to local food banks and school districts. All of it from just this half acre. Phinney is the farm’s only full-time employee, and she has worked with a team of volunteers to get the food in the ground so far.

“We could produce several hundred thousand pounds of produce [if we were] in full production,” she says, referring to the 14.5 acres of bare earth and citing a time only a few years away, when the remaining land will be irrigated and planted in vegetables.

Phinney’s achievement is all the more remarkable considering the location. Prior to Phinney, Contra Costa County had used the 15-acre property as a dumping ground for excavated subsoil trucked in from elsewhere. The ground was so poor that even weeds struggled to grow there. However, as prospective farmland, the place had two big things going for it. It was cheap—Phinney leases the land for a dollar a year—and it came with a free and near limitless supply of water.

The farm is located on sanitary buffer land owned by the Central Contra Costa Sanitary District (CCCSD) and is adjacent to their water treatment plant. Phinney irrigates all her crops with reclaimed wastewater, which she says is nutrient rich, safe, free, and abundant. And for Phinney, the water is the real secret to growing such healthy, high-yielding plants.

The water Phinney uses falls under Title 22 of California’s Code of Regulations, which, in addition to landscaping, allows for the application of sterilized, treated wastewater to agricultural crops. CCCSD’s wastewater treatment process involves a primary treatment of sedimentation, a secondary biological treatment which uses micro-organisms to dissolve suspended organic compounds, and then disinfection with UV light. The treated wastewater is then filtered through a dual media filter and then another round of disinfection with sodium hypochlorite (liquid bleach) to produce recycled water. The resulting water is approved for all agricultural use in California, including root crops.

Still, few municipalities are following Phinney’s lead and using treated wastewater directly for food production. But that’s not because it hasn’t been proven safe.

Read more at the Civil Eats web site

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With a new year, a fond farewell to two colleagues

Dr. Kent Fowler (L) and Victor Velez

The new year will leave some large shoes to fill in CDFA’s Division of Animal Health and Food Safety Services with the retirements of Animal Health Branch Chief Dr. Kent Fowler and animal health specialist Victor Velez.

Dr. Fowler steps down after 16 years at CDFA – his second career after more than 25 years in private practice in Monterey, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, where he treated large animals with a specialty in equine medicine. At the Animal Health Branch, Dr. Fowler provided key insight and leadership during a multitude of emergency disease control efforts, including the recent Virulent Newcastle Disease incident in Southern California. He also garnered national respect as an equine health expert, often advising state and federal partners while modernizing animal health strategies.

Victor Velez is retiring after 34 years at CDFA, a career that has seen him make important contributions to emergency disease eradication, animal identification and traceability, animal movement permitting, data management, and division-wide process improvement. Velez also worked closely with CDFA secretaries Bill Lyons Jr. and AG Kawamura as an assistant in Mexican and Canadian affairs.

“We will miss the contributions of these two respected professionals more than they know,” said California State Veterinarian Dr. Annette Jones. “Fortunately, as is the case with all great leaders, they have built a strong team ready to step-up and ensure that our programs meet tomorrow’s challenges.”

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Small Business COVID-19 Relief Grant Program offers support for farmers and ranchers – application period begins today

Governor Newsom recently announced the creation of a $500 million California Small Business COVID-19 Relief Grant Program. The application period for round one begins today and lasts until January 8, 2021.

The program is administered by the California Office of the Small Business Advocate (CalOSBA) at the Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development. It is designed for small businesses that have been impacted by COVID, including farmers and ranchers. Grants will be up to $25,000.

Eligible small businesses and nonprofits may apply directly at, or with assistance from a partner.

One of the state’s Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs), Lendistry, is supporting the state to distribute these grants and partnering with other CDFIs and small business centers to assist you with your application. To connect to a partner or find more information on the program and requirements, visit or join one of our small business webinars available daily. Those interested in a webinar briefing on the grant program may register here.

Information on the website and the webinars are available in multiple languages.

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Virtual exhibit highlights women innovators in AgTech – from the King City Rustler

National Steinbeck Center Events Manager Cat Harper shows off some of the multimedia on display as part of the new “From Farms to Incubators” exhibition. Photo from the King City Rustler

By Ryan Cronk

A new exhibition at the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas highlights a diverse generation of women innovators and their contribution to agriculture by way of technology.

“From Farms to Incubators: Women Innovators in California Agtech,” which premiered last month, uses multimedia to tell the stories of these groundbreaking female leaders and entrepreneurs, with the ultimate goal of inspiring and encouraging youth to pursue similar careers in agricultural technology.

The exhibit kicked off with a virtual opening Nov. 12, as the Steinbeck Center remains closed to the public due to the coronavirus pandemic. A video of the exhibition, however, can be found online at, with viewing available through Jan. 12.

“There is no better time to celebrate women in leadership positions,” said Amy Wu, creator of “From Farms to Incubators,” who also recently completed a documentary and book of the same name. “The year 2020 is the centennial of women’s suffrage. … We need more women at the decision-making helm of all walks of life.” 

Through photographs, paintings, sculptures and videos, the exhibit brings awareness to women with different cultural and ethnic backgrounds who have historically been underrepresented in the agtech industry.

Wu said a new generation of startups led by women are creating technologies to provide solutions to various challenges that growers face, including the severe labor shortage, limited water and land supply.

“Ultimately, I hope the exhibition, film series and book and events to come serve as vehicles to inspire youth, especially those from rural or underserved communities, to consider that agriculture is a sector that offers an amazing range of opportunities that involve innovation,” she said. “All of us who contributed to this special project remain very hopeful.”

Other speakers at the exhibit’s virtual opening included California State Sen. Anna Caballero, Western Growers Center for Innovation and Technology Director Dennis Donohue, DigitalNEST Founder Jacob Martinez and Frieda’s Specialty Produce CEO Karen Caplan, who all briefly spoke about the importance of women innovators.

Caballero said there is a correlation between the diversity of management teams and overall innovations. 

“Companies that report above-average diversity on their management teams drive innovation-based revenue at nearly twice the rate of those companies that do not, and diverse companies have 22% lower turnover rate, which aids company growth immensely, according to Gallup,” she said. “So the data is clear — diversity works, and that includes starting at the top with women innovators, entrepreneurs and chief executive officers leading the technology revolution in agriculture.”

According to Martinez, the Salinas Valley is becoming the “agtech epicenter of the world,” but he said the community needs to ensure that youth, especially young women, are involved in that ecosystem or it risks losing them after they graduate from high school and college.

“We want those young people to come back to our home and find good jobs, find employment where they can use their creativity and their innovation to solve problems in this world,” said Martinez, who six years ago started DigitalNEST, a nonprofit youth workforce development and empowerment center headquartered in Watsonville with a location in Salinas.

“You can’t be what you can’t see,” he continued. “We need to highlight young women, innovators, entrepreneurs that are doing this work so that our future generations, or youth coming through, can see these leaders in their community and will believe that they can do it also.”

Following the guest speakers was a panel discussion led by Wu that featured some of the agtech industry’s leading women innovators, such as Marrone Bio Innovation Founder Pam Marrone, The Yield Founder Ros Harvey and Persistence Data Mining COO Penelope Nagel.

Although “From Farms to Incubators” will leave the Steinbeck Center in January, Wu said there are plans to bring the exhibition to other agriculture-based regions, including the cities of Gonzales, Sacramento and Fresno.

In addition, the forthcoming book will be published in April 2021, telling the stories of women entrepreneurs who use technology to help solve problems in the agriculture industry.

“The storytelling continues, as well,” Wu said. “We look forward to continuing to collect the stories of women founders in agtech and agbio and to add them to a future book and future documentary.”

For more on “From Farms to Incubators,” visit

Link to story in the King City Rustler

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