FLASHBACK: College of Agriculture Adapts to Expanding Urbanization, Food Trends

“I've learned about soil science, botany, plan diseases, entomology and microbiology,” says agronomy major Paul Nurre, student resident of the university ranch.
“I’ve learned about soil science, botany, plan diseases, entomology and microbiology,” says agronomy major Paul Nurre, student resident of the university ranch.

Editor’s Note: Cal Poly Pomona is running a series of flashback stories this week in honor of the renaming of the College of Agriculture to the Don B. Huntley College of Agriculture. This story originally ran June 4, 2006.

Crop fields and dairy farms that once thrived in Southern California have nearly all been replaced by residential neighborhoods, shopping centers and businesses. Citrus groves and corn fields have for the most part disappeared in a region where agriculture land is often converted to higher-yielding urban development. The College of Agriculture is adapting to current industry trends, including urbanized farming. Perhaps the most exciting new project that will help prime students for this future is a $1.8 million series of state-of-the-art greenhouses at AGRIscapes, with construction beginning this summer.

To offset the dwindling land opportunities, farmers are becoming more creative in their search for space to grow. Instead of relying on large acres of land, foods are being grown in greenhouses, community gardens, vacant lots and even rooftops, according to recent reports.

Growers looking to expand, like San Bernardino-based Lucky Farms, have decided to spread production out across many smaller plots of land throughout the state and even into Mexico. In total, the company farms close to 4,000 acres, with 600 acres being its largest area of land.

“Our only solution was to go outside of the local area, so we’ve become migrant farmers moving wherever we find land,” says Gary Liaou, a 1989 technology & operations management alumnus and vice president of Lucky Farms, noted by the Wall Street Journal as the largest Asian vegetable grower in America. “But having various farms means we must devote more resources to farm equipment, management and capital investment. Farming in California is a challenge.”

But there are bonuses to farming in California, says Liaou, where the population is becoming more health-conscious.

“People are consuming more vegetables than ever before, and because of the diversity in this state and the exposure to various foods, people are willing to try different products, such as our Asian vegetables,” he says.

Formerly known as the Voorhis Unit of California State Polytechnic College, the university began in 1938 as primarily an agriculture school. The first four majors offered at the original 150-acre San Dimas site were citriculture, agricultural inspection, ornamental horticulture and crop production.

Cal Poly Pomona to celebrate Don B. Huntley College of Agriculture.
Cal Poly Pomona to celebrate Don B. Huntley College of Agriculture.

Over the years, the university watched the open areas surrounding the campus shrink as families and business owners moved to town. And as recently as just a few years ago, Cal Poly Pomona lost some of its own agricultural fields when Innovation Village broke ground on the corner of University and Kellogg drives.

“We’ve been adapting our farming practices to the residential environment for the last 30 years,” says Dan Hostetler, Horticulture, Plant & Soil Science department chair and professor who began working at Cal Poly Pomona in 1976. “Because we are so close to homes and businesses, we oftentimes had to alter our farming practices to certain times of the day in certain fields because of the noise or dust.”

Economics have also affected what crops are grown in California and on campus, says Hostetler.

“Today, we grow very little grain for livestock because it has become more cost effective to buy it than run a feed mill,” he says. “We used to concentrate on instruction and culture of field crops, but we’re watching the trends in California and moving toward specialty fruits and vegetables.”

The university now nurtures one of the last remaining commercially produced citrus groves in Los Angeles County, continuing to grow and harvest avocados, honey, citrus, sweet corn and melons, in addition to having livestock and a beef production unit. And at a time when Southern Californians are becoming more receptive to organic, locally grown foods, the university is able to meet much of the public’s needs by selling fresh produce at farmer’s markets and at the Farm Store at Kellogg Ranch.

In an effort to prepare students for a transforming industry, the college is expanding its program through additional course offerings, partnerships with business experts and the construction of a set of new state-of-the-art greenhouses.

In 2001, the College of Agriculture established AGRIscapes, a 40-acre center devoted to teaching students about modern agriculture. The center promotes agricultural and environmental literacy through research, education and demonstrations of alternative methods to grow food, conserve water, reduce energy needs and recycle agricultural and urban waste for resource efficiency and community enhancement. As a part of AGRIscapes, the university operates the Farm Store at Kellogg Ranch, serving dual needs as a classroom/laboratory for the horticulture program and as a market offering Cal Poly Pomona-grown fresh fruits and vegetables and nutritional education to the surrounding community.

A $1.8 million series of state-of-the-art greenhouses at AGRIscapes is addressing the future of urban farming head on. With construction beginning this summer, the project will include 4,000 square feet of hydroponic production, a technology that allows fruits, vegetables and plants to grow in a controlled environment without soil by supplying all needed nutrients in the water supply. An example of this is lettuce that is grown while floating on an irrigated reservoir. Also known as “dirtless gardening,” hydroponics is an innovative method that allows urban farmers to produce crops in confined spaces.

“Not only does this allow you to produce crops in a small area, but it also extends the season for growers because the crops are not affected by the weather,” says Hostetler, who manages the Farm Store.

The new greenhouse project will open in winter 2007, replacing the university’s original greenhouses built near the Rose Garden in the 1950s. To complete this project, the university will need to raise $500,000 and is currently seeking industry and community support.

“These greenhouses may well train the urban food producers for tomorrow,” says Wayne Bidlack, dean of the College of Agriculture. “I believe 25 to 30 years from now we’re going to see clusters of greenhouses surrounding all major cities. It will be a cost-effective way to produce fresh fruits and vegetables for urban dwellers because you can conserve water, and transportation costs will be minimized.”

Looking to the future, Hostetler says the college hopes to begin certified organic production, as well as devote the space surrounding AGRIscapes and the greenhouse to gardens and landscape — a design that fits into a city environment while incorporating horticulture, food production and nutrition.

The college is also focusing on sustaining and creating partnerships with alumni and industry professionals.

“The more we can partner with people in the industry, the better off we are for the future,” says Hostetler. “Students are exposed to new technologies and practices as well as hands-on activities by interning with these companies, completing research projects or using the fields as part of a classroom laboratory experience,” he says.

One such partnership is with JimMartin, a professor at Western University of Health Sciences who has established an acre on campus to grow and sell a new tropical crop, dragon fruit. In another partnership, a local strawberry grower this year is cultivating 15 acres on Cal Poly Pomona property. Produce from these fields is then sold fresh to consumers at the university’s farm store.

Interestingly, just as much effort goes into growing a half-acre of specialty crops, such as baby lettuce, as goes into 100 acres of barley, he adds.

Thanks to grants and community partnerships, the horticulture, plant & soil sciences department acquired 400 cuttings of the historic Zinfandel variety from Mira Loma a few years ago because the vineyard was being moved due to urban development. The 100-year-old variety is now being planted at AGRIscapes, with the hopes that one day it will be Cal Poly Pomona’s first vintage in partnership with Galleano and Sonoma County’s Geyser Peak Winery. Students learn to culture, graft and train the vines, in addition to studying disease control, irrigation and marketing strategies.

In another innovative partnership, the university has leased about 1,000 acres at the California Institute for Men in Chino to allow students to farm specialized seed crops and forages, including alfalfa, corn, oats and wheat.

“The ground, which was originally farm land, was left vacant for five years, and the institute needed weed abatement. The easiest way to keep weeds down in a vacant lot is to farm it, which helps the institute and provides a learning experience for our students,” says Hostetler.

Liaou also works with Hostetler to bring Cal Poly Pomona students to his company to discuss internships and collaboration with farmer’s markets.

“Its important for us to work with the university because students need to get do in the future,” he says.

Paul Nurre, a senior majoring in agronomy, is one of the 150 students learning about urban farming in the horticulture, plant & soil science department. He is a President’s Council Scholar and student resident of the university ranch where he picks mandarin oranges, bales hay and tends to cornfields. With plans to eventually become a vineyard manager, Nurre says the university’s farming opportunities coupled with the education he has received is “priceless.”

“I’ve learned about soil science, botany, plant diseases, entomology and microbiology. I’ve grown a lot since I’ve been at Cal Poly Pomona, and the program is very good preparation for the field,” he says. “There are so many learn-by-doing opportunities on this campus.”

At Cal Poly Pomona, agriculture students are getting the best of both worlds in terms of industry preparation, says Hostetler.

“We are able to provide them instruction on thousand-acre spaces, but they are also exposed to all of the real problems of farming in an urban environment,” he says. “Plus, they have opportunities like the farm store and farmer’s markets, both opportunities to teach them how to take the product out of the field, get it ready for sale and then sell it.”

For more information on ways to contribute to the College of Agriculture, including its new state-of-the-art greenhouse project, contact Michelle Moyer, director of development, at (909) 869-2728.