Some say the industry needs to enlist Hollywood's help -- perhaps a crime show with detectives hot on the trail of hoof-and-mouth disease or Escherichia coli.
Others think the state's agriculture colleges need to cooperate on television commercials like the California Milk Advisory Board's "Happy Cows" campaign promoting California cheese.
At UC Riverside, professors try to draw in students by talking about how insects have shaped human history as disease carriers. The teachers humanize plant diseases by showing students that insects attack trees and vines in the same way salmonella harms people. Educators and agricultural experts estimate that the industry has five years to turn the tide.
Still, the work seems to draw a certain kind of soul.
Bob Gaddie, a 62-year-old Bakersfield plant doctor, is the third generation and last of his family to work in agriculture. His grandfather owned citrus groves in Corona, and his father was a ranch foreman.
Gaddie is a consultant, hired by farmers to be their first line of defense against wily menaces like spotted spider mites, which suck the moisture out of leaves and strip a grape vine bare within weeks.
He monitors 7,000 acres of almonds, pistachios, grapes and citrus for a dozen growers. He wakes up at 4:30 a.m. six days a week and is walking in the fields as the sun rises.
On a recent Wednesday morning, Gaddie stopped his blue Ford pickup outside a grove of almond trees and ambled down a row, ducking low-hanging branches heavy with nuts. He wore jeans, a starched blue shirt with long sleeves and a pair of well-worn, dusty brown cowboy boots. He snapped a leaf off the tree and searched it for bugs with a magnifying lens that hung by a string around his neck. He repeats the same exercise 10 times in each field he visits, using an index card to track the number and kinds of bugs he sees.
Gaddie knows that the industry is headed for a rough spot. Most of his colleagues will probably retire in the next decade, and he plans to retire in two or three years, leaving farmers he works with hard-pressed to find a replacement.
"There are plenty of opportunities, but kids just are not into it," Gaddie said. "It's not a glitzy profession."