USDA Foreign Market Exchange Competition challenges students

By Lann Nguyen, April 16, 2024

Cal Poly Pomona students competed online against eighteen schools hosted by the United States Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Market Exchange Challenge Feb. 27.

The immersive event preparation took place over the course of four weeks via Zoom sessions utilizing the case study method. CPP did not come out victorious against winners from the InterAmerican University of Puerto Rico in Aguadilla, but the team received an honorable mention for its one-page summary portion of the challenge.

This competition, which is only offered to minority-representing schools, main purpose was to find students who would be interested in working for the USDA. Students were a part of a class this spring called BM2990 Directed Studies. Weekly workshops were conducted as part of the class aimed at preparing students for the challenge. Mentors were provided for those who currently work in the foreign agricultural service, and this served as a networking opportunity for students as well.

Jon Phillips is the chair of Agribusiness & Food Industry Management/Agricultural Science Department and a professor of Agribusiness. He was the advisor for the five-student team for the second consecutive year. Phillips was searching for students who showed interest in agricultural exports and displayed exceptional presentation, teamwork and research skills.

“I believe in student-led work, so the students get all the credit for doing it,” said Phillips. “I recruit the students, set up the class, come to the weekly meetings and make suggestions. But the students have to produce something entirely on their own.”

The foreign agricultural trade focused challenge started in 2021 as an initiative by the Biden-Harris administration’s Executive Order 13985 to support the advancement of racial equality and supporting underserved communities.

Agriculture science students Dennis Silveria, Michelle Donovan and Citlalli Moreno-Diaz, apparel merchandising and management student Karina Zamarripa, and Anairy Gonzalez, an agribusiness and food industry student were the five team members who worked together to examine a case study. The hypothetical scenario involved exporting and importing cheese to a foreign country.

Acting as consultants who worked for a successful dairy cooperative in the United States looking to expand their business, students had to develop a plan to export cheese to the Philippines. The assignment was broken down into different sections including economic analysis, export plan and sustainability with smart agriculture all while utilizing programs that the USDA offers. The team chose the Philippines because of its population and growth of pizza chains and the economic growth within the country.

“We just saw that as something that would be unique compared to other places like Mexico, everyone knows that’s where you get cheese, so I feel like that didn’t make us unique and that’s why we picked the Philippines because it had better potential,” said Moreno. “South Korea was already doing well with their imports and exports. I feel like we just wanted to be different. When we did our presentation, I think the judges were actually very interested in why we picked that place, and they asked us plenty of questions. We had several resources to back up why we thought this place had potential.”

Given the creative freedom to create the details of the cooperative, students chose to comprise the group of Indigenous Native American women who were able to regain their native homelands in Oregon, where their goal is to make it big in the cheese industry.

The team had four weeks to develop a detailed plan, write a one-page paper and create a presentation from start to finish. Judges from the USDA watched the presentations, asked the team questions about their decisions and chose which schools would move forward in the competition.

Gonzalez and Moreno shared the same sentiment about this class that allowed them to have a more hands-on experience to help construct their future.

Several of the participants are interested in pursuing a career within the USDA. Each student had different reasons for joining the team, but all shared a yearning to learn more about foreign agriculture.

“Having that hands-on experience with specifically the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition database really allowed me to look through different reports of the countries that we were researching to find the best market potential for our cheese product,” said Gonzalez.

The process of creating a plan by utilizing the databases available to the team was a new experience and laid the foundation for future opportunities. Taking advantage of participating in challenges like this one is an aspect of CPP’s “learn by doing” approach.

Donovan came into the team without a business background, her career interests lay with the Natural Resource Conservation Service. She learned a lot from this experience and gained valuable experience learning how to troubleshoot.

Approaching this challenge from different perspectives of students studying different fields at CPP lent a diverse range of skills and knowledge to the task at hand. Although this was only a hypothetical scenario, the challenge prepared students for real-world tasks while challenging them to develop skills and learn from their mistakes in a classroom setting.

“After learning how to balance the work from all of my classes I felt this was a rewarding experience because once we competed, we knew that we gave it our all and were really happy with what we accomplished, even though we didn’t win,” said Moreno. “This opened up an opportunity for something that I would feel comfortable doing in my career.”

Feature image courtesy of Lann Nguyen.

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