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Pierce College--Hard to Keep ‘em Down on Farm

Times Staff Writer

Twice a week the Pierce College farm pickup truck rolls onto the dirt driveway of the Trafficanda Egg Ranch in Canoga Park. At a loading dock, 150 dozen eggs are stacked in cardboard boxes.

Pierce employees carefully load the eggs onto the truck and then return to the Woodland Hills campus, where the eggs go on sale at the school’s farmers market.

For the past year, half of the “farm-fresh eggs” sold at the Pierce market have come from off campus. The few aging hens at Pierce can’t lay enough to keep up with demand.

The reduced egg count is one indication of changing times in the college’s agriculture department, where production of home-grown dairy products seems to be running as low as student interest. From a peak of 2,000 in the 1970s, the number of Los Angeles Pierce College agriculture majors has declined to 370.

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Another Direction

Since its founding in 1947 as the Clarence W. Pierce School of Agriculture, the college and agriculture have been closely aligned. But on its 40th anniversary, the school is moving away from its roots, and the future of the agriculture department is uncertain.

Pierce President David Wolf launched an examination of the agriculture curriculum in the spring, after the department appeared on a list of those falling short of enrollment expectations set by the Los Angeles Community College District.

Wolf sought to determine whether his two-year college, in an urban area that is no longer a farming center, needs an agriculture program that operates on 250 acres of valuable land, has the school’s highest annual budget and serves the fewest students.

A report by a committee of administrators and teachers was completed two weeks ago and sent to district Chancellor Leslie Koltai. Its recommendations will not be made public until Koltai and the district Board of Trustees approve the report.

Although the president’s report is confidential, Wolf has indicated that some changes will be made.

The college’s options appear to range from the drastic--closing the agriculture program and selling the land--to a gradual shift in emphasis to attract more students.

The probable choice, Wolf said in an interview, is the latter. The college will probably phase out outdated and unpopular courses and build a curriculum that mirrors growing segments of the San Fernando Valley’s agriculture industry--landscaping, nursery management and horse breeding.

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“We certainly need to be positioning ourselves to move out into new areas where there is a societal need, where there are jobs and where we are serving the community that we are here to serve,” Wolf said.

“To the degree that we don’t do that, we will deserve the ridicule of the public. We’re not just here to sop up public funds because historically we have done a certain thing.”

Sale Speculation

There is speculation that the financially troubled community college district might sell some of the Pierce land, 250 acres that West Valley real estate authorities estimate is worth at least several hundred thousand dollars an acre.

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Wolf has tried to dispel the rumors and soothe the fears of students and faculty members. Neither he nor any other administrator studying the agriculture department has publicly suggested eliminating any of the department’s seven majors. And if any farmland is sold, Wolf said, he would resign.

Most of Pierce’s 12 agriculture faculty members agree that the curriculum must be overhauled to attract more students. But the question of what should be cut has caused “a considerable amount of bitter in-fighting in the department,” said Lee Shapiro, a dairy-science teacher and an outspoken opponent of drastic changes in the program.

Modifications of the curriculum would not take place until fall, 1988, said Cedric Sampson, a district vice chancellor.

Wolf and Malcolm (Mick) Sears, chairman of the agriculture department, said the program probably will emphasize courses in high demand, such as pre-veterinarian, horse care and breeding, and management of nurseries and flower stores.

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New Look

“The school will have a new educational look,” Sears said. “Fewer animals, a different emphasis in animal production, crop production and an emphasis on farming as a small business.”

Critics say eliminating courses such as those on large-animal care would cut the heart out of the college’s farm program.

“What I’m against is the cheapening of a Pierce agriculture degree,” Shapiro said. “That’s what could happen if the curriculum was filled with a lot of backyard agriculture classes.”

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Pierce is not alone in trying to reshape its agriculture program. Throughout California, colleges are adjusting to lower agriculture enrollment and decreased demand for courses in large-animal production, dairy science, and citrus and orchard production, officials say.

In Ventura County, the community college system closed agriculture programs at two campuses and consolidated courses at the third. At the Ventura campus, which has the only remaining program, the emphasis has shifted from farm operation to nursery management and floristry, which covers floral design and store management.

At Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut, lack of student interest has forced the closing of the poultry farm and a change in dairy science from production to processing. The school increased the number of pre-veterinarian and horse-science courses and expanded the horticulture program.

In the California State University system, only four of 19 campuses--San Luis Obispo, Pomona, Chico and Fresno--offer agriculture degrees. Agriculture enrollment has declined, and there is a movement away from training students to become independent farmers toward courses that focus on the scientific side of farming--biotechnology, genetics and experimental forms of crop cultivation.

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Finally, the University of California system is reviewing its agriculture curriculum at three campuses--Berkeley, Riverside and Davis. Agriculture schools at all three have experienced enrollment declines since the mid-1970s.

At UC Davis, home of the state’s most renowned college agriculture program, officials are using an aggressive recruiting campaign that stresses the variety of its offerings, from environmental studies to wine-making.

In Los Angeles County, there are few farms remaining and few jobs on them. Today, the county’s largest agriculture employers are landscape companies and horse breeders, Pierce administrators said.

Enrollment in Pierce’s agriculture courses reflects the demands of the job market. Horticulture and horse science are popular. Courses in cattle, sheep, poultry and swine production are suffering from low enrollment.

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Pierce graduates in the veterinarian assistant program usually have no trouble finding jobs at pet hospitals or with veterinarians, school officials said. Horticulture graduates are employed by Valley nursery and landscape companies, or open flower shops.

But the number of agriculture jobs in Los Angeles County has declined 13%, from 12,300 in 1979 to 10,600 last year, state figures show.


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