Rick Shade was just a freshman at Cal Poly Pomona when he visited Pine Tree Ranch in Ventura County for the first time in the fall of 1979.
“It was just a beautiful, well-cared-for, well-maintained ranch,” he recalls. “It was a crisp fall day. We had had a little rain, and we had beautiful clear fall skies. The hills were green. It was a picture-perfect postcard shot as you pulled in to the ranch.”
The fruit industries student spent 10 weeks at the ranch near Santa Paula that winter as an intern. He was one of about 160 College of Agriculture students who learned how to manage the orchard at Pine Tree Ranch from 1977 until the internship program was discontinued in 2003. But the College of Agriculture has started a fundraising campaign to restore the ranch and give students the opportunity to work and learn there.
A Dec. 8 ribbon-cutting ceremony marked the start of the campaign and featured an initial gift of $100,000 from Santa Paula-based Calavo Growers. The California Avocado Commission also has agreed to help provide research and internship opportunities.
“Once the ranch is renovated, we will bring plant science and agribusiness students back here again to learn how to manage orchards,” says Mary Holz-Clause, dean of the College of Agriculture. “Together with our industry partners, our faculty and staff will help Pine Tree Ranch thrive again and become a valuable cornerstone to the ‘learn-by-doing’ philosophy at Cal Poly Pomona.”
Cal Poly Pomona’s history with Pine Tree Ranch dates back to the mid-1970s.
Electrical engineer Carlton Wasmansdorff had purchased the ranch in 1965. But by the mid-1970s, he was in poor health. Wasmansdorff wanted to settle his estate and donate the 53-acre ranch to an educational institution that would continue to operate it as a citrus-avocado orchard for at least 25 years.
The engineer wanted his ranch to continue to preserve the ecology of the area, contribute to the local economy, and give young people jobs and experience in agriculture.
Caltech was Wasmansdorff’s first choice to take over the ranch because of his engineering background. But Albert “Ted” Canham, a plant and soil sciences professor at Cal Poly Pomona, found out about Wasmansdorff’s plight through a friend and neighbor of Wasmansdorff’s.
That led to Cal Poly Pomona President Robert Kramer sending a letter to Wasmansdorff, expressing the university’s interest in the ranch.
Ultimately, Wasmansdorff decided to give the land to Cal Poly Pomona after meeting with a university delegation that included Canham, Vice President of Academic Affairs Hugh O. La Bounty (later university president), and Cal Poly Pomona Foundation representative John Francis.
In November 1976, about a year after Wasmansdorff died, the ranch became the property of the Cal Poly Pomona Foundation for the benefit of the College of Agriculture. It included a ranch house that was built around the 1920s, a mobile home, garage, several storage sheds and farm equipment.
Learning by Doing
College of Agriculture students began working at the farm in 1977, living in the double-wide mobile home. Lee Cole, who was a conservator for Wasmansdorff’s estate, oversaw the operations until 1980, living in the main house.
Shade signed up to work at the ranch in the winter quarter of 1980. He came from a family that managed farms in Orange and Santa Barbara counties, so he already was familiar with agriculture.
“I wanted to get more experience in a more modern, updated setting,” he says. “Orchard management was more intensive at Pine Tree Ranch than I was used to.”
Along with fellow student Scott Scarbrough, Shade took care of frost protection, building and equipment maintenance, repaired broken concrete irrigation pipes, and thinned the avocado orchard and handled flood control.
“We spent a lot of time cleaning the shop and organizing and checking ditches for proper drainage,” he says.
After Shade’s internship ended, he returned to Pine Tree Ranch on a number of occasions. The Citrus Club would travel to the ranch every fall to bring out the smudge pots to protect the orchards from cold weather. The club also would have a BBQ lunch there.
Later, Shade landed a job as a crop technician for the College of Agriculture, allowing him to work on campus, at Spadra Farm and Pine Tree Ranch. He started converting the ranch from furrow irrigation to solid-set sprinklers.
Other classes from the College of Agriculture also made field trips to the ranch to study and work on specific projects designed to acquaint them with agriculture in Ventura County. Faculty and students were encouraged to create individual research projects at the ranch.
Rebirth: Renovation & Restoration
Because of budget cutbacks, the student internship program was discontinued in 2003. However, Pine Tree Ranch remained a viable facility for commercial tree crop production and the fruit that was grown there was sold to various juicers and growers, including avocados for Calavo Growers. The Avocado Commission also entered a 20-year lease with the college to conduct research on 11 acres at the ranch.
The fundraising campaign offers prospective donors the opportunity to sponsor a room in the two-story, Colonial Revival-style residence, which will be renamed the Wasmansdorff Avocado House. Other options include sponsoring a brick on the walkway or out on the patio of a new gazebo, or to become a named sponsor with an acknowledgement with a bronze plaque at the entrance gate.
Lee Cole, who was a conservator of Wasmansdorff’s estate, is now chairman and CEO of Calavo growers. Although he was an engineer, Wasmansdorff fell in love with agriculture late in his life, Cole says.
“If he could see what was going on today, he would be delighted,” Cole says.
Once the ranch is renovated, the College of Agriculture plans to resume the internship program, allowing students to live at the ranch and manage the day-to-day operations and crop production. The college also will continue to collaborate with the Avocado Commission on research projects. Portions of the revenues generated will help fund student agriculture programs on campus.
For Shade, the experience working at Pine Tree Ranch was invaluable. When his grandfather passed away, Shade was asked to take over running the family ranch at Carpinteria.
“The family property had seen better days, as my granddad got old and didn’t have the energy to keep up,” he says. “With my Cal Poly education and Pine Tree experience, I was able to turn the ranch around and make it a shining star.”
Shade eventually sold the family ranch and started his own farm management business in Santa Barbara County. And, as a member of the Avocado Commission, he still visits Pine Tree Ranch occasionally as part of a committee that oversees its lease with Cal Poly Pomona.
“I enjoy being back at Pine Tree these days, and I am beyond happy that the Avocado Commission is using the ranch for meetings and demonstrations for local growers,” he says. “With fewer and fewer farm kids around these days, I think it is an excellent idea to get students back to Pine Tree and give them some experience and insight into day-to-day farming.”
Research conducted by Holly M. Greene also contributed to this report.