Meat firm’s multiple beefs with Poly

Harris Ranch, which protested format of fall address by food writer Michael Pollan, also lobbied the university to drop a professor from a class on issues in animal agriculture

nwilson@thetribunenews.comJanuary 9, 2010 

Last fall, Harris Ranch Beef Co. demanded that opposing views from additional speakers be presented during a scheduled talk at Cal Poly by best-selling author Michael Pollan — and the format was changed.

The demand — accompanied by a threat to withdraw $500,000 in donations pledged for a new meat-processing center on campus — generated controversy.

But that wasn’t the only concern raised by Harris Ranch at the time.

Based on e-mails from August to early October that The Tribune obtained through a Public Records Act request, Harris Ranch lobbied to have a Cal Poly faculty member quit teaching a class he helped to develop in the 1990s called “Issues in Animal Agriculture.”

As Harris Ranch had done with Pollan — who says large-scale agriculture is too energy intensive — ranch executives criticized Cal Poly professor Robert T. Rutherford for his views on sustainable farming, which the Harris Ranch officials consider unrealistic and anti-big business.

Since then, Rutherford decided to step down from teaching the spring class, one he’s taught primarily since its inception.

Rutherford said he’s doing so voluntarily and that he wasn’t pressured by anyone to stop leading the course, which has covered topics such as global climate change, use of public lands by the livestock industry and biodiversity. Students — mostly seniors — also discussed issues such as animal rights, biotechnology, water quality and food safety.

Rutherford, who began teaching at Cal Poly in 1974, said he’s nearing retirement in the next few years and thought it best for another faculty member to take over the class.

“Issues in Animal Agriculture” has a new senior project component this year, and Rutherford said a different faculty member could best coordinate its development.

Andy Thulin, head of Cal Poly’s Animal Science Department, said a specific faculty member hasn’t been chosen yet to teach and design the course for the spring.

Request to meet

Harris Ranch, based in Selma near Fresno, is one of the nation’s largest beef-processing centers.

Company chairman David Wood and his assistant, Michael Smith — who both studied animal science at Cal Poly — say students need a balanced view of agriculture, which Cal Poly officials say is provided in the agriculture program.

Harris officials also are requesting a meeting with Cal Poly officials that will help them to decide whether to move forward with their pledge.

Wood had pledged to donate $150,000, and company owner John Harris pledged $350,000 toward Cal Poly’s new meat-processing center.

The university intends to start construction on the estimated $5 million facility in the spring.

“The decision of whether to continue with the pledged donation will most likely be predicated on the outcome of the aforementioned meeting,” Smith told The Tribune in an e-mail.

Cal Poly officials are open to the session, but haven’t been able yet to find a convenient time given the busy schedules of those involved, according to the university’s public affairs department.

Wood said in a phone interview that a broad-scale, alternative farming business model — including organic farming — has a place in agriculture, but it can’t “feed the world.”

After a Sept. 14 phone conversation between Smith and Rutherford, Wood sent an e-mail to Cal Poly President Warren Baker seeking Rutherford’s removal from teaching the course.

Wood wrote in a Sept. 23 letter or e-mail that Rutherford said “grain-fed production systems were not sustainable, that corn should not be fed to cattle, and especially not in large-scale animal feeding systems.”

“Mr. Rutherford then had the audacity to offer Mike (Smith) an entirely unsolicited opinion that water should have never been provided to farmers on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley,” Wood wrote Baker. “As Harris Ranch operates one of the largest farms in this region, Mr. Rutherford implies Harris Ranch should not be farming.”

Wood also pointed to Rutherford’s use of Pollan’s book “Omnivore’s Dilemma” and Eric Schlosser’s “Fast Food Nation” in the class as evidence of his “bias.”

“Omnivore’s Dilemma” examines different methods of food production, including industrial, organic and local production.

“Fast Food Nation” looks at the local and global effect of the fast-food industry.

Without directly responding to the e-mails, which Rutherford said he may not have seen in their entirety, Rutherford said he understands that businesses try to protect their interests.

“If it is perceived that the claims/approaches of one business model will cause loss of market share or lowered profitability, it would be natural to oppose that model,” Rutherford said in a recent e-mail to The Tribune.

Baker responded to Wood in September with a letter saying that a personal conversation between a professor and industry leaders shouldn’t be confused with Cal Poly’s position on agriculture.

“A professor’s freedom of opinion is a piece of academic freedom,” Baker wrote. “Academic freedom, a pillar of American universities, also calls for peer debate among the faculty as to what should be taught in the classroom. Your concerns will certainly spur such a dialogue between Mr. Rutherford and his peers.”

Herd reductions questioned

Beyond the specific complaints about Pollan and Rutherford, Wood and Smith questioned how the rest of the agriculture program is taught at the university, according to the e-mails The Tribune reviewed.

The Harris Ranch executives also wrote that they are concerned about the reduction of animals they say are invaluable to hands-on training at the university.

They also want to make sure that in every course in which a sustainable or organic farming model is taught, conventional agriculture methods also are presented.

Thulin said the animal reductions have been based on a tight budget in a bad economy.

Wood said he’s not sure how much money, or in-kind materials, the ranch has donated to Cal Poly, but said the company has “fostered untold job opportunities to numerous Cal Poly graduates over the years.”

Cal Poly officials aren’t disclosing information about any donations from Harris, and cited a Cal State University policy not to reveal donor records unless the university has been given permission.

Rutherford said he’ll continue teaching other courses, including sheep management and holistic management, which aims to encourage farming decisions that are “ecologically sound, economically viable, and socially just,” Rutherford said.

“The outcome of such decisions is intended to be a sustainable civilization,” Rutherford said.

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