Kaitlyn (Bucky) Yates: MS, Soils Science and Agricultural Service
- Graduated from Wheaton College with dual B.A. degrees in Geology and Spanish
- Managed a nonprofit in Cusco, Peru that empowered young girls through sports
- Soil and crop consultant in Nepal
- M.Sc. in International Agriculture Development with a specialization in Soil Science
- Community Program Manager for The Wonderful Company in the Central Valley of California
It’s so hot.
That’s the armpit of California.
I’ve lived a lot of places in the world. Some of them pretty dang poor. The challenges I’ve faced in my life do not compare to what some in this world have gone through, but my career choices also have not taken me into “easy” situations either. I’ve battled with various highly preventable illnesses with poor health care, vertiginous roads and inebriated drivers as my only options out, strikes, bribes, rural border crossings, lack of food, water, shelter, severe isolation, economic shutdowns, and I would never complain about any of these things. I certainly don’t want to romanticize the places God has led me into, because a big reason why I am there is to pursue economic and livelihood wellbeing for all. However, no place I have ever lived was met with as much resistance as when I chose to moved to Bakersfield, Ca.
If I am being honest with myself, I resisted just as much as everyone else did. You see, I grew up in Northern California and I heard about Bakersfield. It was not a place that had a stellar reputation in the Golden State, and I fed into this narrative. So, when my husband received an internship opportunity to go and work for an agriculture company there in the summer of 2016 I told him I would not be joining him. “What job opportunities are there for me down there?” I questioned. I was thankful that I had been networking with a local Soil Scientist working for the National Resource Conservation Corps near Davis, CA. She had emailed me recently and said she would be recommending me for a fellowship program they gave out which would not only give me summer experience working for the NRCS, but it would also secure me a job offer at the end of the fellowship. My agriculture degree and soil science specialization I was currently pursuing were paying off, and Bakersfield was not going to get in the way of my career.
After graduating from Wheaton College with a degree in Geology, I had been toying with different career moves for several years before landing on the right graduate program that would get me there. During my time of searching I spent a few years working for the non-profit sector in Seattle, WA and Cusco, Peru. I loved the grassroots work I was a part of and the direct services I was bringing to the neediest in my communities. Most of all I loved the relationships I was able to form, and how God made me more and more into the woman I wanted to be through challenging me with some of the really tough stuff you deal with while living in poverty. It was during my work in Peru that I finally realized how I wanted to use my B.A. in Geology and take steps towards a more secure future. Many of the youth and the families that I worked with while living in Peru were severely mal nourished and spent a large part of their lives depending on agricultural yields for their nutrition and income. They were sustenance farmers, just like many of the world’s poorest billion, and they had no access to the knowledge or resources to improve the nutritional value of their crops or maximize yields. I loved what I was doing, but I felt torn by the fact that while my non-profit role was serving the important need of providing physical activity to teach confidence and leadership, it was not addressing the essential need of having enough food to eat.
I returned to the U.S. and enrolled as a graduate student in a M.Sc. in International Agriculture Development from the University of Davis where I could learn about the latest science related to nutrition-sensitive agriculture in the development sector. My plan was to complete this program while pursuing a specialization in Soil Science. I signed up for every soil science class I could take, often thankful for my background in geology, but also overwhelmed by the biological side of the science that was completely new to me. When I found the fellowship with the NRCS I was elated, I was finally going to be able to get into industry, and see how using soil science could impact real farmers. Granted, these farmers grew almonds, pistachios, alfalfa, and raised cattle instead of fava beans and potatoes, and yes, they lived in Central California and not on treacherous Andean slopes at 12,000 feet, but I would learn so much that I would apply one day, right? It seemed like God was opening this door, for me to be an applied agriculture scientist.
But there is another part to the story. Grad school is really hard. It isn’t so much the coursework, it’s the imposter syndrome that cripples you and the expectations of being at a top-tiered research institute with no background in agriculture at all. My soil science classes gave me severe doubt about my future, my passions, my career choice despite my continual pursuit of them. I struggled with depression and anxiety. I so desperately wanted to sit at the table of female soil scientists, to be an example to other girls that we could make it, but something just wasn’t sitting right inside my soul.
Three months before my husband left for Bakersfield and I would begin my NRCS fellowship, I was sent an email that would set me in a new direction. The email was about an agriculture college prep academy for low income, Central Valley youth. The program was sponsored by one of the worlds’ largest agriculture companies (based in California). The email talked about how the Central Valley of California has some of the lowest educational success rates in the country, their rates of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease were unprecedented elsewhere, and students severely lacked the resources and opportunities to graduate from high school and pursue a meaningful career. The Ag Prep Academy was a free charter school for kids of employees of the company where they would have the opportunity to take community college classes while in high school in an agriculture related field such as plant pathology, entomology, or soil science. A wave of excitement I hadn’t felt in quite awhile returned to me. This seemed like the perfect match of grassroots, direct service work, in a scientifically minded field. Perhaps I could compromise between my two passions? I immediately reached out to the program and sent in my resume and no sooner than I’d received the email was I being considered for a competitive internship working with some of the most under resourced youth in California in the field of soil science. The internship was also based near Bakersfield, making my husband all the more encouraging that I pursue it.
However, as quickly as I thought I had found the perfect match God changed the hearts of the people I had been communicating with at the company. After looking over my resume and seeing my recent experiences abroad and working in youth empowerment the company approached me with a new opportunity for which they had been waiting for the right candidate. This position would be to run a pilot health and wellness summer camp for the community of Lost Hills. This community is an unincorporated town, that resides a few miles from one of the companies’ processing plants. The company hired approximately 50% of the residents in the community and had been investing back into the town since the county and district were underfunded and Lost Hills was often left out of their budgets. My role would be to help the Program Manager develop all the curriculum for the physical fitness course work, teach, and run the day to day operations.
Now, to be clear, I went to grad school, partly because I wanted to make a difference for the resoure limited farmers of the world through soil science, but I also went back because I didn’t think anyone would pay me to do the non-profit work I felt so drawn to long term. Here I was facing the irony of being offered a position with an agriculture company, to do the work I had left behind in Peru, to pursue a career in soil science. Despite the location and the sudden turn of events, I decided I needed some time to consider my future in soil science. Besides, I could do anything for 3 months, I’ve certainly dealt with worse conditions.
People were right about one thing, Bakersfield is HOT. My summer was spent between 100-115 degrees F on a daily basis, but those people were also wrong, and so was I, about so much else. Bakersfield is the center of the U.S. agriculture industry. Without this place and the surrounding Central Valley, all of us would go hungry or pay inflated prices for imported produce. Its primary industries, oil and ag(spell out?), are the life blood to this county. Bakersfield isn’t an armpit, it’s the beating heart of America! What’s more, Spanish is as common as English, they have a thriving country music scene, the nearby rock climbing was on world class granite. Nowhere else on the planet could I be line dancing with Latinos to country music after a day of cragging. I felt at home. For that, my husband gave it the affectionate nickname, “Bakerdise,” because it was our paradise. However, it was also suffering from severe brain drain as anyone who received a college education would go to Los Angeles or the Bay Area for higher paying jobs. Resources were limited, education was in dire need of a reform, and health endemics(?) plagues the county. Despite these things, it was a place I quickly realized was full of potential, and the narrative I wanted to shape around it was not why?but, why not?!If that meant going a different direction than a career in soil science, I was going to trust God with this one.
So where is science in my life now? I currently work for the Philanthropy team of The Wonderful Companyas their community program manager based in the Central Valley. I manage more relationships than soil core samples and I spend a lot more time driving than in the field. However, it is my background in geology, agriculture and soil science that legitimize my seat at the table with policy makers, local government, oil and natural gas partners, farmers, and especially farm laborers who I need to collaborate on a daily basis. It is now through working with scientist and community members that I seek to make big change for the better in the Central Valley of California.