Sensing the Fields: A Report on the Emerging Ag-Tech Initiative at UCSC
In 2018, conversations began at the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC) to make ag-tech a major priority in programming. Many of the discussions referred to how this programming could build on three distinct campus strengths: agroecology, engineering, and an overarching commitment to social justice, all while being positioned between the tech-heavy Silicon Valley and the agriculturally prolific Salinas Valley. In light of these emphases and UCSC’s unique campus setting, the research detailed in this report sought to identify the synergies and frictions between agroecology and ag-tech, the potential for meaningful collaboration across campus units, and the prospects for incorporating social justice values into campus ag-tech efforts. Based on interviews with 23 UCSC engineers, agroecologists, and social scientists, we found far fewer synergies than anticipated, and indeed hoped for, and some significant barriers to collaboration. Given what we identified as substantial differences in disciplinary approaches, potential uses and beneficiaries of ag-tech, and access to institutional resources among engineers, agroecologists, and social scientists, it is clear that for an ag-tech initiative to move forward and achieve widespread buy-in, sustained, respectful, and more symmetrical dialogue must take place. Otherwise, UCSC risks chipping further away at its reputation as an alternative and socially engaged institution, and thus ironically dispensing with its singular competitive edge in this domain relative to the many other universities in the US with long histories in ag-tech.