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Supporters Vow Fight to Preserve College Farm

Education: Agriculture program advocates say cutbacks threaten Pierce property. School officials say reductions will affect all areas.

September 22, 1997|HENRY CHU | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WOODLAND HILLS — With a grim round of budget cuts looming for Pierce College after years of deficit spending, advocates of the campus agricultural program are hunkering down to stave off what they fear may be a blow from which their vaunted farm will never recover.

Nestled amid ranch houses in the West Valley, the farm has been a fixture of the community college for decades. But steady enrollment declines, piecemeal sales of land and newly tightened finances have proponents concerned that the program is on the brink of succumbing to a death of a thousand cuts.

So supporters, who include students, faculty and neighbors, have launched a campaign to enlist community and political backing, raise private donations and have the area declared an official agricultural preserve.

"We have drawn a line in the sand," said Marla Scripter, a student who is leading the effort to save the farm. "Our intention is to demonstrate how much support we have and to lobby industry, the community and government officials to step in and see to it that the land gets preserved in its current use."

The target: a college administration that the group contends has consistently undermined the farm over the past several years, selling off land and withholding funds. Farm supporters worry that the $4.8 million to be slashed in campuswide spending this year will provide an excuse for administrators to further erode the program as a prelude to phasing it out altogether.

Pierce officials reject accusations that the agricultural program--the only one of its kind in Los Angeles--will be disproportionately hit.

"All the cuts are from all areas," said Nader Farnoush, vice president of administrative services.

The college already has eliminated classes throughout its departments, including a handful in the agricultural program, Farnoush said. A review committee composed of administrators, instructors and students has convened to examine the viability of all the college's offerings, with recommendations due by the end of the year.

"No department and no program will be singled out," said Carmelita Thomas, Pierce's vice president of academic affairs.

The college was founded as an agricultural school in 1947 to train returning GIs for jobs in farming. More than 2,000 students were enrolled in that program at its height in the 1970s, but the number has dwindled to a few hundred each semester. The program is now one of 500 two-year agricultural schools nationwide, many of which are struggling to survive.

Pierce farm advocates acknowledge that the current cutbacks have been spread throughout the college. But as a result of continual belt-tightening and a confluence of other circumstances, they view this juncture as critical for the farm's survival.

Specifically, supporters are scrambling to save three pieces of property on the 240-acre farm from potential development, including one parcel that officials are considering converting into a golf driving range. Several lots of the farmland have already been sold to developers. Also sold has been livestock, which now numbers several dozen, down drastically from the 1,000 head of cattle, sheep, chickens and other animals during the farm's heyday.

"Once the land is developed, you'll never be able to make it a farm again. It's gone," said Leland S. Shapiro, an alumnus and longtime professor in the agricultural program.

Shapiro, whose specialty is animal husbandry, has been among the most outspoken in defending his department. In a sharply worded letter to the editor of the college newspaper on Sept. 10, Shapiro accused administrators of "raping" the farm and pleaded that they "stop this insanity."

The letter led Pierce President E. Bing Inocencio to request a faculty ethics committee investigation into the matter, Academic Senate President Helen Krahn said.

"There are two concerns," said Krahn. "One is that there is incorrect information [in the letter], and the second is that there had been no effort on the part of Dr. Shapiro to work within the system. Many of us learned of his complaints in the newspaper for the first time."

The ethics committee was expected to make a recommendation today. Krahn said it will most likely not censure Shapiro personally but instead suggest guidelines for airing such grievances.

Shapiro, however, is unrepentant. And other supporters scoff at the notion that they have not tried to work with the administration. Rather, they say, they have been rebuffed at every turn.

"We have not gotten any encouragement from the community college district or the administration of the college to work with them to try and find ways to save the farm," Scripter said. "We're fed up with not being taken seriously."

To pressure administrators, Scripter's task force has appealed for help from lawmakers at both state and local levels, from Assembly Speaker Pro Tem Sheila J. Kuehl (D-Santa Monica) to Los Angeles City Councilwoman Laura Chick, both of whom represent the area.

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