When College of Agriculture Dean Les Young thinks about the hundreds of students, acres of orchards and abundant animal pastures on campus, he sees change. And that change is a good thing.
With the college and the university celebrating their 75th anniversary this year and Young closing in on retirement in September, change is the buzzword.
When Young arrived in the late 1970s as a lecturer in agricultural biology, his students were mostly white and male. Today, the college has a majority of female students and its diverse racial demographics reflect the surrounding communities.
Young remembers when students converged on Kellogg Gym for class registration, when mimeographs were advanced technology, and when the graduates received actual diplomas at commencement. More remarkable, he says, are the changes in the ag industry and the college’s evolving focus.
“Agriculture today is science, technology and business. It’s no longer about whether you can drive a tractor or lift a 50-pound bale. It’s about using your brain and using your skill set in business, science or technology,” Young says, who has served as dean since 2008. “I think that speaks well of America transitioning to an equitable workforce. People with a given set of skills and abilities should not be held back because of race or gender – things that are not important to the job.”
In California, agriculture is a $44 billion industry that relies on people with technical, business and leadership skills. Young often uses a lettuce analogy to explain the shift from traditional farming to agribusiness: A farmer can grow a head of lettuce and sell it for 25 cents. If you chop up the lettuce and package it in a bag, you can sell it in a grocery store for $3.
That shift in thinking is one reason why Young encourages faculty to get involved in industry and students to be active in their professional organizations. Increasingly, employers want to hire well-rounded graduates who, in addition to technical know-how, also have communication, organization, and leadership skills.
“Les has encouraged and provided support to faculty in pursuing grants, which keep us up to date in the research arena,” says Assistant Professor Lisa Kessler, who is serving as the interim associate dean. “In addition, faculty revise and update their curriculum to keep up with changes in the industry so that we can produce students who are well prepared for the current and future workforce.”
On the surface, Cal Poly Pomona’s farm operations look about the same as they were in the 1970s, but with the need to conserve water in California, the orchards are going high-tech. In-ground sensors can detect when water is needed, and irrigation can be adjusted through a smartphone app. The sensors and the app can even recommend how much to water a particular crop.
The hydroponics laboratories (growing plants without soil) in AGRIscapes are another example of urban farming. “You can grow four times more produce in a given area with hydroponics than in the field,” Young says. “California is the epitome of high-technology farming. It’s big business; it’s agribusiness.”
Peggy Perry, a plant sciences professor, says Young’s strength is his focus on students, especially those who are from underrepresented backgrounds. He often mentored them informally and formally through the program AGREES, which was established in the early 1990s.
“Les has been able to contribute in many different aspects of the university — teaching, advising and mentoring, being a university-level administrator, and guiding a college. Not everyone has the skills to be active at so many levels,” Perry says.
After 36 years, Young says it’s the right time to retire. He’s proud of his many accomplishments – teaching hundreds of students, putting the college on financially stable ground, and positioning it for success in the next 75 years.
“Years ago, I had the son of one of my students in a class. His father, Steve Finnell, was in one of the first classes I taught. Twenty years later, [Steve’s] son is sitting there and looks just like him. … I don’t want to be here when his grandson is here as a student,” he says with a laugh.
In retirement, Young is looking forward to traveling (China is at the top of his list), playing golf, serving the community and spending time with his four grandchildren.
“What attracts me to Cal Poly Pomona the most is not the location or the buildings, but it’s the people. It’s a great working environment because over the years I’ve made many friends,” Young says. “It’s always been a pleasure to work with people who become like your family. They just grow on you. I’ve really enjoyed working with all the folks from all over campus.”