Lessons From the Field
Much hay has been made over the financial problems plaguing Pierce College’s farm and agricultural program. Oddly enough, part of the solution may lie in that hay. For the past two years, the college has allowed volunteer farmers to plant and harvest hay. The project not only kept the farm’s cattle, horses and sheep fed, but netted something Pierce’s green thumbs have been unable to raise: cash.
The lessons from the partnership should not be ignored by Pierce administrators or by the neighbors and other activists campaigning to preserve the farm from development. The economics are impressive. In 1996, the agriculture department spent $3,620 for seed and other necessities. By 1997, it harvested 89 tons of hay worth $13,380--a sizable return by any measure. This year, thanks to plenty of rain, the harvest was worth more than $25,000.
Land is Pierce College’s most valuable physical asset. Its holdings just east of Warner Center are worth millions--a fact that has not escaped the notice of Pierce’s business-minded president, Bing Inocencio. Proposals to develop a large part of the farm as a golf course inspired scorn from farm protectors and neighbors who enjoy the open space. But unencumbered views and warm remembrances of the San Fernando Valley’s agricultural past don’t pay the bills.
If farm supporters want it to survive, they must do more than picket the school and show up to oppose development plans. Inocencio would be an irresponsible administrator if he did not look to leverage all of the assets at his disposal. Farm supporters should look to the hay harvesting project as inspiration for other money-making ventures that reap both academic and financial rewards. Some of the shrewdest businesspeople alive are farmers who scratch a living from the earth. For the farm to survive intact, its supporters must think more like farmers.
So, too, must Pierce administrators. Although The Times has supported the concept of a golf course that would preserve part of the farm and generate as much as $750,000 for agriculture programs, Inocencio and his administration should not rush into the project without first exhausting the profit opportunities of the farming operation. The hay project--however modest--demonstrates that favorable returns are possible. How much more profitable could the program be if, for instance, the college developed strong curricula in such popular programs as urban forestry and range management?
The hard truth remains that the future of Pierce College farm lies in its ability to make money. Ideally it can be done through traditional agriculture--as the hay harvest illustrates. Failing that, though, the land cannot be wasted.