For decades, a single philosophy has prevailed inside the Fresno State agriculture department. Whether it was growing grapes or almonds or producing milk, students were taught that the best way to farm – indeed the only way – was to rely on conventional methods.
The university, in short, reflected the bottom-line maxim of industrial agriculture: pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers. But over the past few years, a quiet shift has taken place inside the agriculture department.
For the first time, Fresno State is offering a course in organic farming and has invited one of the Valley's premier organic vegetable growers to lecture its students. At the same time, a group of younger, more progressive teachers has replaced a set of veteran professors who regarded the tenets of organic farming with skepticism, if not disdain.
This shift in ideology has literally taken root on a patch of soil across from the campus dairy and tucked behind the Rue and Gwen Gibson Farm Market at Barstow and Chestnut avenues. Organic beets, garlic, carrots and broccoli, row after perfect row, are ready to be harvested.
This 3-acre plot may pale in comparison to the organic programs at other agriculture schools across the state, but it's a definite nod to a different philosophy. While conventional farming remains the bread and butter of Fresno State agriculture, 12 more acres of organic crops will be added to the campus' 1,000-acre farm in the next year or two.
"I think it was probably a little slow in coming, but understandable given that there were a number of older faculty in the department. That tends to keep things a little bit constant," said Andrew Lawson, department chair of plant science. "I think that with new faculty coming into the department, we've implemented organic fairly quickly. The new faculty saw that as something that needed to be changed."
Dave Goorahoo, who teaches the organic production class at Fresno State, welcomes the shift.
"We are moving in the right direction," he said. "It's always good to move much faster, but we need support to move in that direction.
"Land is one thing, but we need equipment and funding."
Tom Willey, a respected organic farmer and owner of T & D Willey Farms, said the nod to organic was long overdue. "By having a more progressive educational agenda, I think they would attract a broader student population," he said.
Willey took several undergraduate agriculture courses at Fresno State for two years in the mid-1970s. "I was trained as a conventional farmer at Fresno State," he said.
Willey started his farm in 1981, using conventional production systems, but switched to organic farming in 1987 after he noticed that each year he had to increase the amount of chemicals he pumped into his field to produce an adequate crop.
A few weeks ago, Willey was pleased to be invited for the first time to talk to an agriculture topic class about organic production. Students are visiting his Madera farm to see his methods up close.
"I found the students to be very open to the idea that agriculture is just an experiment and we don't know how well it's going to work in the future," he said.
Other schools ahead
After a class in organic farming planned for spring of 2006 failed to attract enough students, Goorahoo began teaching the organic production course as a topic class in spring of 2008. The class was formalized into a stand-alone course this semester and will be offered each spring semester.
"We cover the rules and regulations as well as the standards for organic farming," he said. Students learn about every aspect of organic production, from preparing the land to selling the products, focusing mainly on vegetables.
Students visit large- and small-scale organic farms in the Central Valley to get a first-hand view of the systems, then practice growing their own crops on a portion of the school's organic plot. This semester, the class is growing romaine lettuce. Goorahoo said the harvest will be donated to the Poverello House and the Bulldog Pantry.
It took a grant from the federal government to kick-start Fresno State's organic program. In the summer of 2008, when the field was certified as organic, the program received a $250,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Various seasonal crops are planted in the fields to keep them producing throughout the year, said Sajeemas "Mint" Pasakdee, adviser for the student-operated program. "It's very much anything that we can grow," she said.
Pasakdee said the organic farm focuses on soil health and does not use any pesticides, even those that are organic-approved. The organic produce, including beans, peppers, broccoli, lettuce, spinach, beets, celery and asparagus, are sold to Fresno State's University Dining Services and are available at the campus farm market.
Fresno State boasts an organic greenhouse that was certified organic three years ago. Vegetable and herb transplants are produced in the organic greenhouse and sold through the campus farm market. Some transplants are also grown for the organic plot on campus.
While Fresno State has made some real strides in the realm of organic farming, it still has a considerable ways to go to catch up to schools with more robust organic programs.
California State University, Chico, for instance, has an organic dairy, organic greenhouse and 100 acres of organic farmland. Half that land is used as irrigated pasture, and the other half is dedicated to growing crops, school officials said.
At Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, the organic farm started as a 4-acre plot about 15 years ago. Today, 12 acres of the school's 150-acre farmland are devoted to organic crops.
For more than a decade, Cal Poly has offered several organic-production classes. "We have sustainability concepts presented in just about every course we offer," said David Headrick, the school's organic farm faculty adviser.
Running out of funding
Money looms as one potential threat to Fresno State's fledgling program. The USDA grant and donations from private companies are quickly dwindling. Pasakdee said that private donors will have to pony up in order to keep the program thriving.
"At some point, I hope the industry will step up and give financial support to the program," she said. "We hope to keep it as a long-term program, but at this point we have another year before we run out of the money."
Charles Boyer, the dean of the agriculture department, said he hopes to get another USDA grant. "We're looking at a renewal, but there's no guarantees either," he said.
Willey and other leaders in the local organic scene had high hopes when they heard about Fresno State receiving a donation of nearly $30 million from the Jordan family in April 2009. Those hopes were quickly dashed, however, when they found out that the university was planning to spend most of the money on bricks and mortar. Boyer said $20 million has been set aside to create a research building where faculty and students can conduct experiments.
Willey still thinks it's not too late to add in an organic element to the research. "I'd love to see Fresno State be a part of that revolution," he said.
One way to do that, Willey said, is for Fresno State to offer a greater array of courses in its organic curriculum that reflect the increasing popularity of alternative farming methods. He said students would benefit from a microbiology class about organic methods that delves into disease and pest management and plant health.
Members of a growing club on campus, Students for Environmentally Responsible Agriculture, agree. "I would be interested in a class that would actually work on the organic farm," said TariLee Frigulti, vice president of the club.
Cynthia Ortegon, who was a founding member of the club when she was a plant science major at Fresno State, works for California Certified Organic Farmers. She said the organic program has expanded far less than club members expected. "We were hoping that they would do larger scale, like 25 acres," she said. "It is unfortunate that they're not providing more and more land."
But the school's agriculture professors point out that the central San Joaquin Valley remains the province of large-scale agriculture corporations that focus on mass, conventional production for exports, grocery chains and food-processing companies.
"Our predominant focus," Lawson said, "is still where the predominant focus of agriculture is in the Valley."
Correction: Sajeemas "Mint" Pasakdee's last name was misspelled as Pasakadee in the original version of this story.
Tara Albert, a Bee student-writer and Fresno State senior, wrote this story for her in-depth reporting class.