The Sustainable Agriculture Research Consortium (SARC) has been getting a lot of unanticipated attention for its annual fundraiser featuring noted author and journalism professor Michael Pollan, but not for the right reasons. Cal Poly has been criticized by members of the agricultural community for hosting Pollan, who they say has controversial views on farming and food production.

Pollan, who will be speaking today at the Performing Arts Center as part of a panel, has written a number of books about food and the way in which it is produced including, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals” and “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto.” Pollan has spoken all over the country and agreed to help SARC raise money at a dinner and give a free speech to Cal Poly students.

Michael Pollan has written “The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals” and “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto.”

Pollan has been an outspoken critic of large-scale farming that in his view is taxing too many natural resources. Pollan warns against food production with a large carbon footprint because of processing, packaging or shipment. He only supports farming operations that have free range farming and animals that are fed their natural diet. His views on farming and raising livestock have garnered a large amount of criticism from traditional large-scale food production companies. This criticism has also been aimed at Cal Poly for hosting his speech.

Hunter Francis, the program associate of SARC, said it agreed to pay Pollan to speak at the dinner, which was expected to net $50,000 for SARC by charging guests $150 a plate at the event.

In order to help pay for the initial expense of hosting the dinner and to pay for Pollan’s speaking fee, SARC recruited several local organizations to sponsor the event. These organizations include the New Times, Hearst Ranch and several organizations affiliated with Cal Poly. The most notable of these organizations is Cal Poly’s College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Resources (CAFES).

David Wehner, dean of CAFES, said that Pollan’s total speaking fee was $20,000.

SARC is made up of faculty members within CAFES but does not report directly to Wehner. SARC is “sort of independent” from CAFES, Wehner said. This will change next year, as SARC is slated to become more involved in the college.

The issues that Pollan talks about are controversial and received a lot of concern from the agriculture community, Francis said. But having Pollan speak is a rare opportunity to hear the views of someone who has had such influential books, he added. The New York Times named “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” one of the 10 best books of 2006, as did the Washington Post.

Pollan was asked to speak in order to raise money for SARC, Wehner said.

“If you were gonna raise money for the baseball team you wouldn’t invite the Cuesta coach, you would invite the manager of the L.A. Dodgers,” Wehner said.

However, there were reservations among the CAFES department heads about Pollan because of some of his views about (conventional farms), so it was decided that there would be a panel to discuss different views on sustainability, Wehner said. At that time it was uncertain when that panel would be held.

The concern that was felt within the department then extended to prominent supporters of Cal Poly’s agriculture program within the community.

The most backlash came from Cal Poly alumnus Dave Wood, the CEO of Harris Ranch Beef, which is a large meat processing company, and a large contributor to CAFES. Wood wrote a letter to Cal Poly President Warren Baker telling him that he was reconsidering a $500,000 donation towards a new meat processing facility on Cal Poly’s campus.

The letter stated that he was upset at the direction that CAFES was taking. The first problem that Wood referenced was that Pollan’s speech was being endorsed by the university.

“I find it unacceptable that the university would provide Michael Pollan an unchallenged forum to promote his stand against conventional agricultural practices,” Wood said in the letter. “To add insult to injury, CAFES unashamedly admits to contributing $5,000 in discretionary funds to offset a portion of Mr. Pollan’s speaking fee. Had a balanced forum been provided, perhaps I would not have such a strong negative feeling towards the university.”

However, Wehner disagrees with Wood’s assessment that Cal Poly agrees with Pollan’s arguments.

“Whenever you have a speaker it does not reflect the views of (the university),” he said.

The other major concern that Wood had, according to the letter, was a conversation that his assistant, Mike Smith, also a Cal Poly alumnus, had with Cal Poly professor Rob Rutherford about what sustainability meant. Wood objected to the fact that Rutherford did not consider some of the practices that Harris Ranch uses to be sustainable.

“Mr. Rutherford then had the audacity to offer Mike an entirely unsolicited opinion that water should have NEVER been provided to farmers on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley,” the letter read. “As Harris Ranch operates one of the largest farms in this region, Mr. Rutherford implies that Harris Ranch should not be farming!”

Wood then questioned the validity of Rutherford’s class and his ability to teach it.

“Dr. Baker, please assure me that the views held by Rob Rutherford are NOT the norm among the faculty in the Animal Science Department at Cal Poly,” the letter said. “Can you provide me with any assurance this man’s personal views are NOT being taught to the students that attend his classes? Can you explain to me why Professor Rutherford is the only faculty member in the department teaching Issues in Animal Agriculture, which is a required course of all Animal Science students?”

Issues in Animal Agriculture is still a requirement on the 09-11 course catalogue for animal science majors but the New Times reported that the faculty recently voted to eliminate the course as a requirement.

President Baker wrote a letter back to Wood that offered a compromise to have Pollan answer questions from the audience and then have a panel discussion with other industry professionals. Baker also said that Rutherford did not speak for the university but defended his right to voice his opinion.

“A professor’s freedom of opinion is a piece of academic freedom; academic freedom, a pillar of American universities also calls for peer debate among the faculty as to what should be taught in the classroom,” Baker said in the letter to Wood.

Teaching students about sustainability was an important goal of the university for all Cal Poly students, Baker said in the letter.

“It’s paramount for educators to engage their students in all aspects of such an emerging topic,” the letter read. “Clearly, for our agriculture students, sustainability is a huge issue. If we do not involve our students in the sustainability debate, we set them up to be blindsided when they embark on their careers.”

Wood then sent the final letter in the exchange that approved of the format change for the event but still chastised the university for hosting Pollan.

“Moreover, we are appreciative of recent actions taken by individuals within the College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences (CAFES) to bring a semblance of balance to the Michael Pollan event to be held on campus Oct. 15th,” the letter said. “It is truly unfortunate that decision makers at the university did not have the forethought to provide students both sides of the debate when this even was first being organized.”

Wood also included some quotes from Pollan that he found offensive.

“…we would like to provide a small sample of the many negative quotes attributable to this radical U.C. Berkeley journalism professor:

‘To keep the animals healthy on that corn diet, you have to give them lots of antibiotics, they won’t survive otherwise.’

‘To me, going on feed lots, chicken and hog operations, it has changed the way I eat. You can’t go through those places without being changed. You lose your appetite for certain kinds of food,’” the letter quoted.

Given the choice of having a panel after his speech or participating in a panel, Pollan decided to be a part of the panel. Gary Smith and Myra Goodman will also speak at the panel with Pollan.

Smith is currently the meat science Monfort Endowed Chair at Colorado State University. Smith has been a leading expert in meat science for more than 40 years and has published 334 full-length articles in refereed scientific journals, according to his Web site at Colorado State University.

Goodman along with her husband founded Earthbound Farms, one of the largest organic farming companies in the country. Pollan, an advocate of organic farming, criticized Earthbound Farm for the amount of fossil fuels that they use to ship and process their products.

“I am familiar with many of Michael Pollan’s books and think he is an incredibly intelligent man and a very creative and persuasive writer,” Goodman said in an e-mail. “I had a hard time with how he portrayed Earthbound Farm as ‘industrial organic’ in the ‘Omnivore’s Dilemma,’ because I think his score card was too focused on our fossil fuel usage … ”

Goodman was invited to speak for the panel on Oct. 5 while Smith received his invitation several weeks ago.

Francis said that he thinks that the panel may be more valuable to students than a stand-alone speaker.

“It is very easy to find Michael Pollan’s talks on the Web,” he said. “It is a rare opportunity to see an exchange of ideas.”

The panel’s discussion will start at 11 a.m. and go till 12:30 p.m. in the Performing Arts Center today.

Join the Conversation


  1. Mr. Pollen indeed has every right to his controversial views, and the right to present them to Cal Poly students and faculty. Vigorous debate is a pillar of academic freedom. The presenting of his views are not, however, the problem. Students are frustrated, and understandably so, about money they are paying in tuition and college fees being spent not on classes, but lining the pocket of a man they take strong issue with. If Mr. Pollen wants to present his anti-big farm views to students, that’s fine. But he should not being getting $5000 in student money to do it. There are plenty of other sources students aren’t paying into. $20,000…can you say exorbitant?

  2. As one that’s spoken gratis many times at Cal Poly events, I find it most vexing that Michael Pollan, a civil servant and state employee, is being paid a $5,000 appearance fee.

    On behalf of all those who have traveled far and at their own expense to speak at the university, thanks Cal Poly!!!!!

    And people wonder why the state has budget problems?!?!

  3. I hope the debate over this non-issue fills the house. I think the complaint over the speaker’s fees for his appearance is silly. It is a fundraiser, and the intent is to have someone there who will draw enough paying interest to offset the cost. Sure, you might be able to get some other author to show up for less, or free, but that would not have end result of filling the auditorium and raising them money. I am sure if you disagree and know of someone who would, Cal Poly would love to know about them.

    I, personally, don’t think that Pollan’s views are as as controversial as the hype indicates. Listening to him shows that he is not religiously any big agriculture, but has more focus on sustainability. I come from a long line of farmers and nothing I hear Pollan say sounds too different from what I can imagine many people in agriculture believe.

    Finally, Cal Poly is a learning institution that encourages its students to think for themselves. Let them.

  4. As an alumnae of the Animal Science department I have to say that Dr. Rutherford was the best professor I had in the entire College of Agriculture. He presented a balanced, intelligent view of raising animals. So many of my classes felt like they were job training courses funded by major agriculture companies (in particular the poultry classes I took were completely sponsored by Foster Farms and their way of doing things was presented as the best and only way to raise poultry.) I challenge the College of Agriculture to continue supporting diversity of thought and opinion.

  5. Originally there was not going to be a debate. They planned to have Polan speak and have no presentation of dissenting view or questions raised to Polan. It was only after the fact that many people protested not being able to ask questions and criticize Polan’s speech/views did they put together the panel. That was what the outrage was mainly about. And that the College of Ag gave him 5000 dollars of STUDENTS money to come speak here.

  6. This was my written response sent to Dr. Thulin, head of the Animal Science Department regarding David Wood’s first letter.

    I wanted to have a chance to respond to the letter written to President Baker from David Wood. I am also a proud alumnus (ANSCI ’06) of Cal Poly and I am outraged by the email below where Mr. Wood has asked for Mr. Rutherford to be removed from teaching the course, Issues in Animal Agriculture. During my four years at Cal Poly (2002-2006) I had the opportunity to work with many different professors within the Animal Science Department. None of the professor’s had quite the same impact as Rob Rutherford. Growing up on a ranch in central California, Mr. Rutherford reminded me to explore beyond tradition and look at the land/operation and see what needed to be done. Part of what makes him such a masterful instructor is he challenges all students to think outside the box and be able to defend their positions, regardless of what the position may be. Mr. Rutherford may have a different view of sustainable than some animal scientists, but isn’t the key to having a great debate being able to bring together two opposing sides and have each promote/defend their position? A great move on Mr. Rutherford’s part would be to invite Mr. Wood to visit his class on the day where sustainability in agriculture is being debated, not by Mr. Rutherford, but by the animal science students. Mr. Wood could then see first hand that the class is about debating topics facing our industry today with each student researching and providing a viable solution. The world is changing, better yet evolving, and it is being left to our generation, the new and upcoming adults in agriculture, to adapt and modify previous practices to meet the current needs of today. With teachers who encourage students to explore beyond the conventional agricultural practices and methods, graduates of Cal Poly head out into the industry with open minds, prepared to be the best we can be. Reading materials such as Fast Food Nation better equip students to debate everyday issues with people outside of the agriculture industry. In order to defend the lifestyle not many of us grew up in, we need to understand the opposing views and arguments from those who are threatening it. What kind of college would Cal Poly be if all students were taught is what the industry leads them to believe? Cal Poly produces some of the most qualified well rounded graduates of any college in the nation, thanks to instructors like Rob Rutherford. It would be an extreme detriment to your department to lose his insight and inspiration from the curriculum. I hope that Mr. Wood can see beyond his own invested interests, learn to appreciate the diversity of the staff, and continue to donate money to the Animal Science department without any stipulations.

    Thank you.

    1. To what Leoma said, AMEN!

      Personally, I don’t care that the college paid five grand in appearance fees to Mr. Pollan. He’s a well established writer, that was worth listening to his every word, and I would have GLADLY paid $5-10 to go see him talk if that was needed to fund his appearance and the cost of holding today’s debate. Instead, the college of Agriculture decided that it’s likely worth it for ALL students to have the opportunity to be able to attend and gave us students a break and paid to offset that cost. Politics aside (and I realize I may be speaking naively), I think academically it was well worth the investment of making the attendance cost free for students. I don’t know if the auditorium would have been as full as it was today if we were to pay an entrance fee. I noticed there were quite a few locals and non-students there just as eager to attend the debate, but the topic of the debate was “Agricultural Sustainability.” Who BETTER than the future potential farmers of America to have the opportunity to have that learning experience.

      I sat outside of the PAC in 80 degree weather listening to the debate from a speaker, and it was worth every minute of it.

      I am glad that Cal Poly values the education of the future industry trend setters than the potential donations the campus may receive. Regardless of Mr. Wood’s intentions, I like to think that Education and Research only has a purpose if it’s meaningful in order to educate the minds to think what not is best for one’s own financial wealth and business, but what is best for humanity itself.

  7. Professor Rutherford does not deserve to be ostracized for his viewpoints by a money mongering jerk like Harris Ranches Dave Wood. Last time I checked, this was a college campus where viewpoints are supposed to be presented regardless of the fact that they are not agreeable to all.
    It’s obvious that Mr. Wood only cares to donate to the school to further his companies glory and spread their limited viewpoints. It’s unfair and ridiculous that he should have so much clout over what is presented on a COLLEGE CAMPUS. Why is he allowed to try to get one of our best professors fired in a time when the school cannot afford to lose anymore teachers?
    I pay to go to Cal Poly to LEARN not be spoonfed what donors want me to hear and frankly I am disappointed the Cal Poly stooped to Mr. Woods level in this matter. So what if they lost the money. Apparently money stands in the way of integrity of character at this school.

  8. As a former Cal Poly student in computer science living elsewhere, I still follow up on what’s happening in our town. Leoma said some very wise words and we need to pay heed to them. However, there is a much bigger issue at hand. In drought-stricken California we can’t afford to waste water on cattle ranching. More water is used up on cattle than all human activities put together, not to mention energy and land resources. To get a true insight, please read this web page:

  9. I feel angry and embarrassed that the university I attend was manipulated by invested interests. It has no business in an academic environment. I will never again support Harris Ranch and I will be sure to pass that feeling along to everyone I am able too.

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