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Funding is down on California's college farms

Cal Poly Pomona's and Cal State Fresno's livestock don't take summer vacation. So as schools scale back agriculture programs amid budget cuts, they rely more on volunteers and market sales.

August 09, 2011|By Carla Rivera, Los Angeles Times
  • "You cant neglect animals  they have to be watered and fed  which means a 24/7 operation. Our academic programs are a living entity," says Lester Young, dean of the Cal Poly Pomona College of Agriculture. The university is home to the famous W.K. Kellogg Arabian Horse Center.
"You cant neglect animals they have to be watered and fed which means… (Gary Friedman, Los Angeles…)

The cattle, sheep and horse herds are smaller these days on the 700-acre farm operated by Cal Poly Pomona in the rolling foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains. Buildings and equipment need updating, and the farm and ranch depend more than before on volunteers and donations.

State funding cuts that have resulted in tuition hikes and fewer classes at California State University and University of California campuses are striking deep at college agriculture programs in California and across the nation. Some schools have been forced to close departments, sell farms, reduce animal herds and scale back research projects, even as enrollment in many agricultural disciplines grow.

Agricultural programs like Cal Poly Pomona's face challenges other academic disciplines don't: Animals don't take a break for summer, bug infestations can wipe out crops, farm equipment can break down, and ever-rising costs of feed have to be considered.

And unlike labs in other academic departments, Cal Poly Pomona's farm and ranch must pay for themselves or borrow money from the campus foundation.

"It's not like working in a chemistry lab," said Lester C. Young, dean of the campus' agriculture college. "You can't neglect animals — they have to be watered and fed — which means a 24/7 operation. Our academic programs are a living entity."

The college used to have five majors in the plant science department but now has just one as budget cuts have forced retrenchment. Meanwhile, enrollment in Pomona's agriculture college has grown 21% since 2005 to about 1,500 students, most from urban areas and many of them women.

The programs under the general heading of agriculture now include veterinary science, human nutrition, pest control, international agribusiness, food marketing, environmental design and recycling.

But it is in the living laboratories that students learn firsthand about ranching, farming, horticulture, irrigation and resource management while conducting research on ways to cultivate and protect the state's rural and urban ecosystems.

Spencer Bray, a Cal Poly Pomona plant science major from Palm Springs, says the opportunity for hands-on experience is invaluable.

"They can tell you to go catch a pig, but it's pretty meaningless until you've tried," said Bray, 22, as he hosed out a hog pen. "It's essential to keep these programs because you can't learn everything in a classroom."

Young said his budget has been cut 25% in the last two years. Only one full-time and one part-time staffer run the animal units, where students have assumed more responsibilities.

"That's challenging because students are still learning and will make mistakes," Young said. "When we're working with large animals and machinery, safety is our first concern."

At Cal State Fresno, state support to operate the campus' 1,050-acre farm has fallen to about 25% of its total operating cost of nearly $6 million, said Charles Boyer, dean of the Jordan College of Agricultural Sciences & Technology. A decade ago, the state covered about 70% of the farm's budget, he said.

Staffers have been cut, cattle and other herds have been reduced, and the college is planning to merge some programs, while also looking to grow more of its own feed, Boyer said.

"When corn goes to $7 a bushel in the Midwest, we're hit as hard as anyone else," Boyer said. "It's unfortunate, but at the same time, it's part of the learning process for students: How do we manage, change the size of the herds, look for other types of feed?"

State support for agricultural and natural resource programs at UC campuses in Berkeley, Davis and Riverside has dropped 15% to 20% in the last three years, officials said. As a land-grant university, UC also receives federal funding and operates county-based cooperative extension programs, 4-H youth programs and nine research centers.

Dozens of administrative and support positions have been eliminated, research has been cut, and some departments within colleges have been eliminated or consolidated, said Daniel Dooley, vice president of UC's division of agriculture and natural resources.

The stakes are high if California is to maintain its position as a world leader in food production as global demand rises.

"There's an enormous relationship between public investment in agricultural research and farm productivity," Dooley said. "If we're going to play a significant role in meeting worldwide demand, including adjusting to climate change, we're going to have to enhance productivity.... California has always been the leader."

But it is likely that college agriculture programs will rely increasingly on public and private partnerships, Dooley said.

Officials at Cal Poly Pomona and Cal State Fresno also are searching for ways to make their operations more profitable by, for example, expanding beef, pork and wine sales to the public.

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