Since 1993, a ranch in Santa Cruz has supported the Cal Poly motto by providing a space where students can experience the diverse functions of a working ranch with four distinct habitats: wetlands, forests, farms and rangelands.

The Swanton Pacific Ranch is a 3,200-acre ranch that hosts a variety of field trips and internships each year, supplying an immersive learning experience limited to Cal Poly students.

Former president of Orchard Supply Hardware Al Smith donated the ranch to his alma mater in 1993. Smith, who graduated with a bachelors in crop science and a masters in agriculture, bought Swanton in 1978. He said he then decided to lease the land to Cal Poly because one of the things he had liked best about the school was its “hands-on” approach.

The addition of land made Cal Poly the second largest land-holding, or land-grant, university in California. 

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Enrolling in Sustainable Forestry and Environmental Practices (NR 475), Vertebrate Field Zoology: Field Techniques in Wildlife Studies (BIO 329) or Sustainable Livestock and Rangeland Management (ASCI 470) allows students to visit the ranch overnight and complete tasks emphasizing their area of learning. 

According to former Cal Poly student and current seasonal Swanton livestock employee Chelsea Davis, staying and working at the ranch is a unique experience because of how involved students are.

“We’ve got a fish trap, we’ve got a bunch of different scientific research [areas], so you can actually look at them and do the research,” Davis said. “If you don’t have a place like this, then it’s just reading about it.”

While Cal Poly has an abundance of living and learning laboratories (equine center, vineyards, dairy unit, etc.), Swanton has something the central campus does not: a stocker enterprise. 

A stocker enterprise in the beef industry focuses on taking young, weaned calves and developing them as they get to their full size. Many ranches use the stocker model, which moves cows all around the farm or ranch instead of just raising them in one place. Swanton staff get young cows about 10-12 months old and care for them until they are sent to the feedlot. 

On campus, students manage insemination, calving and the end-of-the-life cycle for beef production and processing. Swanton’s stocker enterprise provides a different aspect of beef production.

Kara Porterfield, who was raised on a ranch and is the current livestock manager at Swanton, said a large perk of her job was being able to show students this side of the beef industry.

“I’m able to share my experiences,” Porterfield said. “How much work and sweat can go into it and letting [students] realize what’s really behind the beef industry and how much people care about the animals and what they produce.”

In addition to its stocker enterprise, the ranch also has a resident cow-calf herd for the beef program. The ranch is also involved in forestry activities and crop production for a variety of plants including pumpkins, Christmas trees and a “U-Pick” apple orchard that locals and tourists can access during season.

Swanton Pacific Ranch also has spots for nine types of internships, typically done over the summer. The internships cover a broad range of fields, from botany to construction to meal preparation. This means the ranch internships are not exclusive to the majors typically associate with a ranch.

Students in any of Cal Poly’s six colleges can find and apply to positions. Swanton education and research coordinator Grey Hayes said he has even bigger aspirations for these internships.

“I spend a fair amount of time cooking up new field trips or new class ideas just to see if they’ll fly,” Hayes said. “You know, what’s the next thing? What’s a new internship that we want to offer? Now we’ll offer an internship for event planning and coordination because there’s so many field trips and things.” 

Swanton’s location is also a big draw for students.

“Up here there’s more lush vegetation, and it’s a nice thing to compare where you are with another place so you can learn in two different places,” Hayes said. “Then you can come up here and see what’s it’s like growing things in Northern California. And that’s easy to do because they’re both Cal Poly.” 

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