Into the ground
New Times digs deep to find the roots of changes at the Cal Poly Organic Farm
October 14-21, 2010, pages 10-11.
Outside the hilltop gate of the Cal Poly Organic Farm, a few ripe heirloom tomatoes
sat smashed into the gravel of the deserted parking strip, October’s flies crawling in
the oozing red tire tracks. The sight could be a metaphor for the Organic Farm
itself, after Cal Poly officials abruptly shut down the farm’s popular vegetable-
subscription program mid-season in August.
Their action renews consumers’ questions about what food to eat, where to get that
food, and who cared for it before it landed on the plate—questions that arise at the
Organic Farm and far beyond the campus boundaries, throughout San Luis Obispo
County and around the nation. But while participants saw the Organic Farm’s
Community-Supported Agriculture, or CSA, program as an extensive and valuable
community network, a faculty adviser viewed it more as a relentless chore, an
unending parade of nearly 200 boxes a week that needed to be filled with fresh
For Cal Poly, one of the biggest agriculture colleges in the United States, the issue
has also been perceived by some as a conflict of paradigms, a power struggle
between conventional, energy-intensive agribusiness and sustainable, localized
organic farming. That perception was heightened by events on campus a year ago,
when leaked correspondence indicated that Harris Ranch Beef Company, a Cal
Poly donor, successfully pressured college officials to add agribusiness speakers to
a planned lecture by noted food-supply author Michael Pollan.
An accreditation report issued by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges
a few months after the Harris Ranch episode expressed concern over “undue
influence of donors in the operation of the university” and recommended an
independent review of the issue.
Faculty members in the crop science department, however, believe Harris Ranch had nothing to do with the changes at the
Cal Poly Organic Farm.
One thing is certain: When prospective students show up at an open house at Cal Poly’s College of Agriculture, Food, and
Environmental Sciences on Oct. 15, current offerings for college majors will not include organic crop production. The words
“organic” and “sustainable” don’t show up at all in the college’s website for the event, which is designed to attract future
students while enrollment in agriculture production majors has taken a hit in colleges all over the country, including Cal Poly.
Students can take part in a student enterprise class in organic vegetable production, and learn to grow food crops on the
Organic Farm’s certified organic fields in a few campus locations. Thirty students from various majors have signed up for
this fall’s class. The vegetables they grow will take a different route from the field to the fork, foregoing the traditional CSA
And the Horticulture and Crops Science Department remains “100 percent committed” to the Cal Poly Organic Farm,