Education

Cal Poly dairy students rally against proposal to develop ag land

Cal Poly School of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Science students, from left, Amber LaSalle, Elizabeth Russell, Toni Silva, are not happy with long-term draft planning that could convert this ag field into athletic fields.
Cal Poly School of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Science students, from left, Amber LaSalle, Elizabeth Russell, Toni Silva, are not happy with long-term draft planning that could convert this ag field into athletic fields. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

A year after Cal Poly crops science students rallied to save prime cropland on campus, students in the university’s dairy science program are organizing a similar campaign to stop the potential replacement of land used for dairy education with new uses such as recreation fields and a parking garage.

A petition led by Cal Poly dairy education supporters has gathered more than 1,600 signatures, with a goal of reaching 5,000.

The petition opposes sections of Cal Poly’s draft Master Plan update related to some of the space now used for dairy education. Once final, the Master Plan will provide a 20-year blueprint for development and land use on campus.

The draft plan proposes building a parking garage, recreation fields and a corporate yard on campus land near Mt. Bishop Road now used for heifer grazing; animal wastewater disposal; crop production labs and fertilizer experimentation; feed for dairy operations; and two annual Open House events — the tractor pull and rodeo trailer parking, according to dairy science students and teachers.

Corporate yards are typically used for storing equipment and vehicles; this yard also could house the Rose Float project, a business hub and data center.

Cal Poly is taking away the ‘doing’ from its ‘Learn By Doing’ motto.

Jenna Haringa, Cal Poly dairy science major

“If we can’t have the cows there, then we can’t have a dairy and we can’t do our curriculum,” said Toni Silva, a Cal Poly dairy science senior who’s worried about the future of the program. “It seems like they’re trying to push out ag from the campus.”

However, Cal Poly President Jeffrey Armstrong said the Master Plan proposal is “ongoing and involves continued discussion of a variety of options for the growth and development of the Cal Poly campus over the next two decades.”

“The administration and students are equally committed to the future of agriculture at Cal Poly,” Armstrong said in a written response to questions from The Tribune. “Our agricultural programs are part of our identity and who we are as a university. To be clear, the future of dairy science and the needs of our cattle will be accommodated for in the new Master Plan update.”

Precisely where the existing uses for dairy education could go on campus is unclear.

Armstrong said the 20-year horizon will allow for long-term consideration of “various priorities and includes adequate time for Cal Poly administration to develop viable alternative sites and solutions to accommodate programs.”

“Both Cal Poly’s 2001 Master Plan and the new Master Plan update provide for replacing a given function that is important to the university by finding other options and alternatives for supporting that function,” Armstrong wrote.

Our agricultural programs are part of our identity and who we are as a university. To be clear, the future of Dairy Science and the needs of our cattle will be accommodated for in the new Master Plan update.

Jeffrey Armstrong, Cal Poly president

Dairy science senior Jenna Haringa said her younger sister, a high school senior, displayed little interest in attending Cal Poly because of the university’s potential plans. Their family runs a family dairy in San Jacinto in Riverside County.

“My sister didn’t really think about attending Cal Poly because of how they want to take away our ag land,” Haringa said. “She really didn’t consider it too much. That’s disappointing because both my brother and I went here. ... Cal Poly is taking away the ‘doing’ from its ‘Learn By Doing’ motto.”

The university is working on the Master Plan update’s environmental impact report with the expectation of releasing it for public review and comment in early 2017, Cal Poly spokesman Matt Lazier said.

“The important thing to note is that this is a work in progress, and there are ample opportunities for input and discussion — during the Master Plan update itself and later on as specific projects come to fruition,” Lazier said.

Armstrong noted that “discussions about potential alternatives and solutions will continue not only as the Master Plan update process moves forward but also as the campus proceeds with specific individual projects outlined in the plan.”

The latest Master Plan draft, announced in September, replaces existing recreation fields across the road from Baggett Stadium with student housing and amenities. By extension, the new recreation space could displace the existing dairy uses, according to the latest concept.

Last year, Cal Poly crop science program supporters rallied to save the orchards and fields on a southwestern portion of the campus from potential replacement with new housing or a hotel (the hotel idea was scrapped). But after further consideration in the draft planning by the university, the latest draft preserved that area as prime ag land. The dairy science advocates hope for a similar outcome.

“The loss of the land above the current dairy unit represents a critical loss of very limited grazing land for the dairy animals,” said Leanne Berning, a Cal Poly animal science professor and graduate of the program. “This is an important aspect of animal health and well-being. Cattle need a place where they can periodically be off dirt and concrete.”

Berning added that a national trend of campus sprawl has gradually pushed agriculture to the outskirts of colleges across the country.

“I am hopeful that Cal Poly will elect to lead rather than follow,” she said.

The petition states there are not many other viable locations for use as dairy sites.

“This is an animal welfare issue,” the petition states. “Once that land is repurposed, there are few, if any, other options for placing cattle anywhere but in the dry lots. In addition, this means we will have to supply feed for these heifers when they are off pasture.”

Students have sought to meet with Armstrong on the issue, and he has agreed to do so, he said.

“As always, we support our students advocating for their programs.” Armstrong said. “In fact, I intend to meet with our students personally so I can listen to and discuss their concerns first hand. These conversations are healthy and present yet another ‘Learn By Doing’ opportunity.”

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