Moving It Forward: Young farmer found her true calling by the side of the road


Issue Date: October 9, 2019
By Kevin Hecteman
Sara Prechtl’s interest in agriculture began when she saw a field of row crops from the freeway. She’s now an assistant field manager and a PCA, and is active in the Orange County Farm Bureau’s Young Farmers & Ranchers program.
Photo/Mark Lopez

(Editor's note: This is the first installment of a three-part Ag Alert® series about different paths young farmers and ranchers take as they build their agricultural careers.)

One day, on Interstate 405, Sara Prechtl looked out the window and saw her future.

It was a field of row crops belonging to Orange County Produce.

"The crops were grown on the other side of the fence on the Seal Beach naval weapons base," she recalled. "I wanted to walk the fields and look at the crops more in detail, but never got the opportunity due to the high security."

That's not a problem anymore. Now, she works for that very same company, serving as assistant field manager.

"I am a first-generation female farmer working for the former California secretary of agriculture, A.G. Kawamura," Prechtl said.

Sometime after that chance encounter on the freeway, when she was in middle school, Prechtl and her parents visited Napa. Seeing a grapevine for the first time cemented her destiny.

The Rossmoor native who grew up playing water polo and watching Anaheim Ducks hockey games has been in the business for three and a half years now. She graduated this year from the Don B. Huntley College of Agriculture at Cal Poly Pomona with a bachelor's degree in plant science.

Irvine-based Orange County Produce grows green beans and strawberries. The beans are the company's top crop, Prechtl said, and are grown organically and conventionally.

Although she may not have grown up in farming, Prechtl said, "I know how to kill a termite or two"—her parents ran a structural pest-control company specializing in ridding homes of the wood-eating pest along the Southern California coast. She's carried that background into adulthood, becoming a pest control advisor—one of the youngest in the county, she said, and a skill she said serves her well.

"A typical day at work consists of walking green-bean fields for pests and diseases, mapping out fields, reading soil and petiole tests for our nutrient-management plan and food-safety sampling," Prechtl said.

Prechtl also manages a container farm for Orange County Produce and a private garden for the Siembras Program in Santa Ana, which teaches Orange County Produce employees about child development and the California college system ("siembras" is Spanish for "sowing").

Looking ahead, Prechtl said she could someday find herself working in a field of robots.

"One of the challenges facing my generation would be the increase in minimum wage, which makes it difficult for farmers to be self-sustaining," she said. "This challenge could potentially open doors in the agriculture robotics industry. We could see an advancement and an increased use of automated harvesters, especially in crops that are strictly handpicked and packed."

Prechtl's first foray into Farm Bureau came via a fellowship from the Orange County Farm Bureau, which gave her work experience on Spadra Ranch at Cal Poly Pomona. After attending the California Farm Bureau Federation 100th Annual Meeting last year, she learned there was no Young Farmers & Ranchers activity in Orange County and decided to do something about it. About seven people are now involved, she said.

"Orange County Young Farmers & Ranchers is very active in the Harvest for All program," Prechtl said. "In the month of September, at least 90,000 pounds of watermelon were harvested and donated to the food bank, which was a collaboration between Solutions for Urban Agriculture, Westminster High School and Orange County Farm Bureau."

Next year, she's aiming to help Westminster High, situated in its namesake city, start a pasture for its four cows and grow cut flowers for students in the floriculture class. The goal, Prechtl said, is to encourage students to take up agricultural careers in Orange County.

Orange County YF&R is also planning fall farm tours and recruiting collegiate members to take part in the Discussion Meet at the 2020 YF&R conference in Visalia. The group also has launched an Instagram page (www.instagram.com/yfr_oc/), Prechtl said, and is "trying to up our social media game."

(Kevin Hecteman is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at khecteman@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.