The Cal Poly Organic Farm ended its ten-year Community Supported Agriculture program this summer due to lack of funding and the horticulture and crop sciences department’s choice to use alternative strategies to extend its community outreach. The decision prompted protests from some of those involved who felt that the program, which distributed fresh produce, benefited students and the San Luis Obispo community.
On Aug. 17 the department issued a press release stating the program’s termination on Aug. 30. While horticulture and crop sciences (HCS) faculty members said the program was costing the department opportunities and money it could not spare, others said it was a valuable experience for both students and San Luis Obispo residents.
HCS faculty member and the Organic Farm Director and professor David Headrick said the program wasn’t the ideal marketing strategy for a university. The program had become less focused on education and more on income, and there was not enough money collected from subscriptions to cover the costs of the farm and employee salaries.
“With this program, our efforts were focused on only one kind of marketing, in which members subscribe and receive a box of produce,” Headrick said. “They expect to get their produce regularly, but when students have midterms or finals, we have to treat their education as the top priority.”
According to the Cal Poly Corporation the CSA program was running over $50,000 every year in deficit, Headrick said.
HCS department head John C. Peterson said the CSA program was also losing profits because the standard box of produce given to members was becoming less appealing.
“It was a great program to have tried,” Peterson said. “It just didn’t work the way we thought it would. It was not a sound program, and we wanted students to be able to try some new strategies.”
Others involved with the CSA program have a different opinion on the issue. Cindy Douglas oversaw the farm’s production and was an ambassador between the farm and the San Luis Obispo community.
Douglas lost her job when the CSA closed because her salary depended on how much money the farm made, Headrick said.
While Douglas admitted that the program did not make a profit, she said that in order to fund the farm work done by the program’s volunteers, the HCS department will now have to pay an extra nearly $3,000 to $4,000 per month in salaries.
“I worked at the farm for three and a half years, and (this program) has been something I really fostered,” Douglas said. “It’s sad that one or two people in power can bring down something that so many people have built. It was a place for students of all majors to come together and learn about sustainability. It just doesn’t make sense.”
Headrick said the farm is still welcoming volunteers and is on the way to being financially sustainable. Volunteers and students will still have the opportunity to help in the farm’s other areas and in its future programs.
Cal Poly students from a variety of majors volunteered for the CSA program along with the paid employees. Casey Kelleher, a mathematics graduate student, worked in the program as both a volunteer and an employee.
“I was told on July 28 that I would have a job again this year at the farm, but then I heard that the program was closing when the announcement was released,” Kelleher said. “My understanding is that the program wasn’t reaching its optimal production, but it was nice to just hang out up there and sell vegetables at farmers’ markets.”
Dissent against the program’s closing can also be found online. Cal Poly alumnus Terry Hooker helped start the CSA program in 2000 and started a Facebook group called “Friends of the Farm” when the decision to close the program was made public. The group is an open forum for those interested in the issue to voice their protests.
“The program was meant to be sustainable, but the core of sustainability is relationships,” Hooker said. “I give them some benefit of the doubt, but you can’t affect one piece of something without affecting the whole.”
The HCS department plans to emphasize other marketing strategies to create more agricultural and economic opportunities for the department and the school. Peterson said the farm’s land will be expanded and will include a new greenhouse as well as a site for a Cal Poly farm market. Peterson has also proposed a campus co-op, where the school’s chocolate, honey and dairy products can be sold along with produce. A U-Pick system is also in the works to allow the public to come to the farm a few times a week and pick produce. The farm’s produce will be available to students, restaurants on and off campus, and the rest of the San Luis Obispo community.
“We’ve already had some great ideas from students for more changes and gotten great feedback about the ones already implemented,” Headrick said. “Our goal is to retain all the benefits of the CSA without the costs.”