Q&A with Robert Flores

Robert Flores holding a diversity awardName: Robert Flores

Title: Professor Emeritus in Agricultural Education and Communication. I officially retired from California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly) in San Luis Obispo on Sept. 1, 2020.

What is your background and how did you find your way into the ag industry?

I grew up in a suburban area of Bakersfield, CA with my parents and seven siblings. Our family was not involved in agriculture. I didn’t have a clue about agriculture. It was my involvement with the Casa Loma 4-H that got me started. My parents saw value in engaging me and my brothers and sisters with other youth in hands-on agricultural experiences.

I worked in the fields in my early years, not because I had to work in the fields to support our family of ten, but because it was an avenue for acquiring spending money. I harvested onions, picked peaches for canning, gathered eggs at a large egg ranch, collected milk samples for dairy testing and improvement, and milked cows at a 600-head dairy. I worked alongside many people who looked like me. I felt somewhat at home and welcomed in these environments. I also realized how hard physically the jobs were. I knew that for me, I was working for discretionary income. My father provided for our family’s meals and housing. My work in agricultural production made me realize how difficult it might be for some of the workers in these situations to support their families. It made me conscious of who was laboring in various agricultural production settings to provide food for our tables. I developed a profound respect for the agricultural laborers.

Along the way, I enrolled in agricultural courses in high school. I became a member of the South High School FFA chapter. My involvement in FFA and the mentoring of my agriculture teacher piqued my interest in teaching agriculture. I also knew that I did not want to devote my life to working in the fields. I went to college to acquire my degree and teaching credentials. I taught high school for five years before running off to get a Ph.D. and later join the agriculture teacher preparation team at Cal Poly.

Students recently conducted an interview of me and developed an article that was included in the Ag Circle, a Cal Poly publication. The student authors really made me feel terrific about my years of service as a college professor. I loved my job, but I also knew it was time for me to relinquish my role to younger, more energetic, and capable faculty. Now I get to pick and choose where I spend my time.

Why is diversity important to you and your organization?

Diversity, equity and inclusion should be a part of every organization’s DNA. I started teaching high school in a predominantly Latino school district, but it was readily apparent that the participation of Latino students was dismal at best. Agriculture was nothing more than menial labor and fieldwork to many of the students. It was quite evident that Latino students could not envision themselves in the industry. That all changed in the ensuing years. I realized that the agriculture industry had great opportunities to offer to ALL students, but not all students had their “eyes opened” to the possibilities. At the same time, the agricultural industry was not benefiting from the talent pool being developed in secondary educational programs.

Eventually I went into teacher preparation at the university level. I loved teaching so much that I wanted to help prepare the next generation of teachers. My experiences working at the high school level guided me in promoting a cadre of teacher candidates who represented more closely the population of the state of California. It is important that our agriculture and food industry is inclusive. This includes teachers of agriculture.

While at Cal Poly, I helped to re-energize a chapter of the Latinos in Agriculture (LIA), an organization that is affiliated with the National Society of the Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources and Related Science (MANRRS). I recently retired from Cal Poly, but I remain a co-advisor to LIA. LIA remains the name of the student organization, which primarily consists of membership of Latino descent. Cal Poly has yet to attract large numbers of underrepresented student populations to agricultural majors, but I have noticed change over the past 37 years. When I started at Cal Poly in 1983, I was one of four faculty members of Latino heritage in the entire institution. That number today is considerably different. Cal Poly has made tremendous progress in diversifying the faculty and student populations. The number of Latino students and students from other underrepresented student populations has grown considerably. Somehow, many non-Latino students from other underrepresented student populations find their way to LIA meetings. I am so grateful that the student leaders and members of LIA are so welcoming of all students! LIA’s affiliation with MANRRS provides even more incentives for students to join the organization. MANRRS provides student access to the industry. This is key!

Years ago, I also served as the National President of MANRRS. My involvement with MANRRS dates back to 1993. Working alongside a very diverse group of students and professionals was truly rewarding. This experience helped me in spreading the word about opportunities to a very diverse group of members and potential members.

Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Black farmers on the East Coast were involved in a lawsuit with the USDA. Black farmers asserted that the USDA was denying them access to funds that were being awarded to white farmers. I was present at a community meeting of Black farmers who were discussing the lawsuit. I remember a white woman raised her hand and said, “We are behind you all the way.” Her words of support for the cause of the farmers were genuine. However, the Black community leader replied, “I thank you for your support, but I do not want you behind me. That is the problem. I want you in front of me or beside me. We’ve had too many people behind us for way too long.” Those words continue to guide me. Failure to speak up regarding injustices or not addressing societal issues make us complicit with the status quo. It is critical for agricultural leaders across the board to be out in front in promoting a diverse workforce, the workforce of the future.

What current diversity initiatives do you have planned or ongoing?

I serve as one of the core faculty members for the California Agricultural Leadership Program. I have been involved with this program in various capacities since 1995. The program will be celebrating 50 years of existence this year. Its mission is to prepare aspiring leaders for the agricultural industry. I am currently working with an ad hoc group focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion. The education team for this program work together in ensuring that the content is current and relevant to the needs of future leaders in the agricultural industry. Some of the content includes presenters, discussions, and experiential learning situations that address social injustices and ways to be inclusive in addressing possible solutions to societal problems and concerns. Content delving into issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion are viewed as critical to the success of these aspiring leaders. This is one initiative I value and in which I devote time and effort.

I am also a member of the Together We Grow storytelling committee — one of four workgroups convening to build a more inclusive food and agriculture industry and make progress toward increased racial equity. The team is making tremendous progress, and I am excited to work with such committed professionals.

In your opinion, what is the most exciting thing happening in the industry currently?

The most exciting thing I have witnessed is that leaders in the industry are talking about issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion. This has been a topic of discussion for many years, but it often would get a lower priority when more pressing industry issues involving technology and concerns of an economic- or product-base surfaced. The Black Lives Matter movement and other recent instances of racial injustice have put topics of this nature back in the forefront. Do the topics of social injustice impact agriculture? Absolutely.

What is your vision for the future of agriculture?

Agriculture provides sustenance to our nation and the world. Everyone is a stakeholder when discussing this industry. Agriculture includes building and maintaining an environment that is sustainable and productive. It takes ingenuity and talent to continue progressing and finding innovative solutions to the problems associated with feeding the world. That talent and ingenuity must come from every segment of society. Agriculture benefits from a diverse workforce. My vision for agriculture includes a thriving industry with a diverse group of professionals addressing the challenges of the future.

Is there anything else you would like people to know about your organization or the agricultural industry?

My association with a myriad of professionals in agriculture provides me with so much hope for the future. The dialogue and discussions occurring clearly signal that professionals want to better understand societal needs, interests, and roadblocks to a prosperous outcome. The technical developments we have witnessed in agriculture over the past decades are phenomenal. Making sure that agriculture is inclusive will further our progress.

About Together We Grow

Together We Grow is an agribusiness consortium with members that include major agricultural commodities companies, educational institutions, government agencies, and others committed to improving and expanding diversity in agribusiness. The consortium sponsors research and provides a platform to share best practices for building future workforce capacity; it will have its permanent home at the Spur Hydro building. For more information, visit twg.csusystem.edu.

About Spur: CSU System at the National Western Center

Coming in 2022: CSU System will open Spur, where innovative ideas and unforgettable experiences come to life at the National Western Center. Spur’s three buildings at the center of the landmark project in north Denver will ignite and fuel new ideas around water, food, and health and their impact on our lives and our world. Spur is where learning is open and accessible to all. Where researchers tackle the world’s most pressing problems around water, food, and health. Where art and culture challenge and surround you. Where rural and urban, local and global intersect. Learn more at csuspur.org.