The recent cancellation of Cal Poly organic farm’s Community Supported Agriculture program and the lay off of two experienced organic farmers on staff by the Horticulture and Crop Science Department at Cal Poly has caught the San Luis Obispo organic community by surprise and we, the leadership of the San Luis Obispo chapter of the California Certified Organic Farmers, feel that a reconsideration of the decision is critical.
Over the past decade, no other Cal Poly agricultural enterprise has simultaneously, continuously and directly served local organic growers (of which the CCOF certified growers are a part), local consumers and Cal Poly students to the same degree as the organic farm’s Community Supported Agriculture program has.
As organic growers and educators who have been collectively involved with organic agriculture for close to 50 years, we feel that Cal Poly should provide a deeper rationale consistent with its stated mission and to work with the community in addressing any underlying problems, rather than simply canceling the program.
The cancellation letter from Cal Poly to the paying subscribers of the Community Supported Agriculture program indicated that the program was less than optimal as an educational model and thus, was not adequately serving Cal Poly students.
It would be wrong to say that expanding the academic approach to organic agriculture is a bad thing. However, to do so at the expense of actually working with local organic growers (or “outside vendors,” as the letter calls them) is not so clear.
Since Cal Poly has long prided itself on its “learn by doing” philosophy, the idea of students getting a sense of how actual markets work should be valued just as much as academic experimentation.
A second point the letter from Cal Poly makes is that the program’s business model is expensive to operate. The reality is that no agricultural enterprise at Cal Poly has been profitable and that the deficits of those other enterprises are also covered by university funds.
The Cal Poly organic farm is unique at Cal Poly in that the community has played a big role in supporting the farm through the purchase of Community Supported Agriculture program shares, volunteering at the farm and contributing money through fundraisers. This involvement by the community is a critical lesson to students about the importance of building loyal customer relationships fundamental to any businesses’ success.
Also, the Community Supported Agriculture program has proven very successful at attracting students from diverse majors throughout the university and has played an important role in re-establishing the agriculture-community connection that has been missing for so long. It is highly unlikely that any other Cal Poly agricultural enterprise can compare with this level of community and student loyalty and involvement.
Ultimately, the most unfortunate aspect of this situation is how easily it fits into the stereotypical town/gown relationship. Given Cal Poly’s reduced state funding and the disproportional impact it has on the College of Agriculture and the difficulty in attracting students to production agriculture departments, it is troubling to see the loss of an innovative program such as Community Supported Agriculture with little or no community and student input.
Cal Poly’s upcoming capital campaign is expected to emphasize the vision of its “learn by doing” philosophy, its connection to industry and its role in the community. The cessation of the program, the loss of two experienced organic growers from the staff who are key to the success of the organic farm (not just the Community Supported Agriculture program) and the unilateral nature of Cal Poly’s decision doesn’t seem to measure up to that vision. Ryan Rich is the president of the San Luis Obispo chapter of the California Certified Organic Farmers and the proprietor of Four Elements Organics in Atascadero. Eric Michielssen is the secretary of SLO County CCOF and the proprietor of Pozo Organic Farm in Pozo. Neal MacDougall is the board representative of SLO County CCOF and an associate professor for the Agribusiness Department at Cal Poly.