Home > Agvocate, American Agriculture, Education > Harris Ranch vs. Cal Poly – The Rest of the Story

Harris Ranch vs. Cal Poly – The Rest of the Story

To borrow the phrase from my distant relative, here is the “rest of the story,” regarding Harris Ranch, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and Michael Pollan.

Recent posts on twitter and in the media have demonstrated an obvious misunderstanding and inaccurate portrayal of the circumstances surrounding Michael Pollans visit to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.

Some members of the “profood” movement and writers in the media are accusing Harris Ranch of being “Big Ag” controlling what is taught at Cal Poly through the threat of withdrawing funding to protect its own interest. Further, they are taking the position that colleges and universities should not accept financial contributions from industry as it “contaminates” or “slants” the education of the students.

First, the letter from David Woods and Mike Smith, from Harris Ranch (both Cal Poly alumni) was not the only letter sent Cal Poly in regards to Michael Pollan. There were a multitude of others, including myself, all Cal Poly alumni, that wrote to the school voicing our concern over the quality of education being offered, recent actions by the school to close and reduce agriculture units and the trend of abandoning courses in traditional ag. The invitation to Michael Pollan, to lecture without any alternative views being offered was the “final straw.” Those of us that are alumni of Cal Poly share a genuine concern for the direction the school is moving in terms of its agricultural education and Michael Pollan’s visit was the action that triggered the energetic response. Pollan’s visit was the “icing on the cake” that represents a trend in the educational direction of agricultural education at Cal Poly; it was the correlation of what Pollan represents and changes in what is being taught that served as the catalyst.

Cal Poly at San Luis Obispo has removed many ag units from the central campus and placed them off campus, eliminated them completely or greatly reduced them in their size. The feedlot, feedmill and meat processing unit were leveled and dorms were built in their place. The sheep unit was leveled for a baseball field. The swine unit has been reduced to three pigs and is now housing turtles, yes, turtles. And, the state of the art dairy unit has been reduced to a mere thirty cows. A campus store that once offered campus grown products, products grown and produced by students on campus facilities, now only offers popular brands and labels. Additionally, courses at Cal Poly have steadily been trending away from teaching traditional and conventional agriculture to focus on organic and “sustainable” ag, a common message of traditional ag is “bad” and access to the respective units related to animals and crop production has been diminished if not entirely eliminated.

As an alumnus, I fully support the school offering a diverse cross section of view points and do find value in teaching alternative methods of production agriculture. However, our ability to provide enough food for our country and world that is safe, wholesome, high in quality and affordable is dependent upon traditional agriculture. Recent models of “sustainable,” organic and urban farms cannot provide a supply that meets current, let alone future food demand. Recent erroneous claims in the media, movies and journals claiming that modern agriculture is responsible for everything from global warming, soil sterilization, poisoning of people and causing obesity only make it more imperative that colleges and universities teach fact and science and demonstrate class room methodology practically in the field.

It is because of healthy ag programs and research at colleges and universities that we are able to expand our understanding of how to produce food more efficiently and environmentally friendly. To simply abandon traditional practices is absurd. The face of production agriculture has entirely transformed over the past 20 years and to the benefit of the environment and the consumer. References, by the ignorant, are outdated and unfounded. Modern production agriculture utilizes conservation tillage, alternative biological compounds, plants and insects to reduce the use of fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides where the geographic location allows and has taken food safety to all time highs. To reject scientific and technological progress and embrace only organic production, hobby farms and urban gardens is irresponsible and short-sighted.

Further, as a past high school ag teacher, I saw several years worth of new ag teachers entering the field lacking sufficient hands-on experience to help them in effectively educating students. In speaking to them, they shared that the lack of experience was directly tied to their limited access to production agriculture while attending college. All of them wished that they had time in college to implement and practice what they learned in class out in the “field.” That is the value of having units on college campuses that are in working order and accurately reflect operations in the real world.

Additionally, many graduates from colleges and universities, seeking employment in production agriculture, are ill-prepared for the tasks and responsibilities that they face. This is due in large part to the lack and/or reduction of applied application that the students receive at the institutions of higher learning. More colleges are restricting students in the number of credits they may take during their educational stay, in order to move more students through the system more quickly. Ironic that production agriculture has shifted from quantity produced to focus on quality of product and the institutions supplying the workforce have gone from quality of education to quantity of students graduated. This transition has limited the ability of students to pursue the education that they need in order to be successful in whatever field they choose to engage. Simply put, degrees in agricultural fields cannot be successfully achieved without being able to apply classroom knowledge in the field. Ag units on campuses are the equivalent to science and writing labs for science and language majors.

Secondly, the suggestion that colleges and universities should not accept donations from private industry is ludicrous at best, especially given the current economic situation. It is through industry that Cal Poly was able to build a state of the art Dairy Unit, Poultry Unit and Feedmill. Harris Ranch is planning on being the major contributor in the construction of a new Processing Facility. Without private donations and contributions, from alumni and industry, these facilities would never have been constructed and studies in the field on agriculture would never be conducted.

Finally, Harris Ranch is a family owned business, a large and successful business yes, but family owned just the same. It is irritating to see the condemnation of successful family businesses in agriculture by elitist, self-serving, egotists that only bring shame on the “pro-food” movement. I know many of the individuals that are “pro-food” and self labeled “foodies” that understand the importance of having a diverse agricultural landscape that includes traditional, organic and niche market production in order to meet the demands of our country and our world.

Harris Ranch should be praised for their efforts in creatively addressing air and water quality issues; creating a marketing program that allows other family ranchers the opportunity to have a reliable market for their cattle and receive a premium; developing one of the first branded products available to consumers; creating one of the first traceability programs; successfully marketing their product directly to a self owned restaurant; and continuing to financially support higher education.

Just as it is important for parents to be involved in parent associations and school boards at the elementary and high school level, it is essential for the alumni of colleges and universities, involved in their fields of study, to give back and provide input, insight and financial support. Education thrives and succeeds with vibrant grass root involvement, but withers and dies when it is overrun by the government and self-serving activist movements. It is well past time for people to embrace common sense and recognize the importance of a diversified, quality education to the continued production of a readily available, safe, healthy and affordable food supply.

  1. Ben
    October 21, 2009 at 9:17 AM

    Thank you for this post, very enlightening and informative. I couldn't agree more with the need for more "in the field" practical experience for ag education programs. I also agree that we need a diverse mix in our food system that embraces the best of what traditional, alternative, organic and large scale agriculture have to offer. And as for private funding of universities, I don't think there's a single college or university in the world that could survive without funding from alumni, private donations, industry and government. Indeed that's the whole point of universities. They bridge the gap and create win-win partnerships in research and development between students, industry and government.Thanks.Ben Wilsonwww.FarmOn.com

  2. October 22, 2009 at 1:48 PM

    Maybe it is because Purdue is just up the road and there are no California-style education units looking at alternatives to production agriculture, but I see the trend going the other direction (more large-scale ag education, less mixed/urban/organic/whatever non-normal farm ideas). Is this just geographic, do you think?-Ryanhttp://twitter.com/rtadams

  3. October 23, 2009 at 10:59 PM

    Thank you for the comments Ben & Ryan.Ryan – I hope I answered your question on twitter the other day. The sad trend in CA, perhaps due in part to the state budget, "extra" components to education are being cut across the board. More and more it turning into an education within a box. The cuts don't care if you are traditional, big, small, organic, niche, etc. They are all on the chopping block. It is more important now than ever to have strong financial support from alumni. I look forward to talking with you more in the future.

  4. October 27, 2009 at 5:13 PM

    State universities such as Cal Poly likely would never survive without private donations and grants from producers such as Harris Ranch, if they had to operate solely on monies from Sacramento. Those contributions are vital. The fear, I think, is that through its funding agribusiness can then dictate the educational imperatives, or any other discourse that it finds objectionable.Michael Pollan may be a total twerp, but under the charters that the state grants its educational institutions, I believe he's quite allowed to say whatever he wants, without fear or favor regarding private donors.The appeal of higher education is open discourse, new ideas, experiments, facts and science. That's agreed. If Pollan is full of b.s., there are better ways to prove it than to shake the entire ag department at Cal Poly by threatening to pull one's support.Confrontation, discourse, dialog, "field work"—these would go further to dispel any myths perpetrated by Pollan or anyone else than to impose a kind of blackmail on the institution.I hope the next time Harris Ranch or another Cal Poly ag supporter finds something objectionable about what is being taught or said there, they will not threaten to eliminate their support.Staceyhttp://www.roguesview.blogspot.com

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