Even as the state begins to restore some funding to community colleges, years of budget cuts have done serious damage. Specialized programs are still an easy target for trimming. One program at risk is the Pierce College Farm Center in L.A. County's San Fernando Valley. Reporter: Chris Richard
The poultry barn at the Los Angeles Pierce College farm is probably a chicken’s idea of heaven.
The building is tidy, with scrubbed floors and straw changed daily. Student workers keep meticulous notes on the birds’ health, and there’s plenty of time in the care and feeding schedule for socializing – something that’s important to chickens.
Pierce’s pre-veterinary program is very successful. Some 22 veterinary schools accept the community college’s students on an equal footing with graduates of four-year institutions. Not only are the Pierce courses much cheaper than they would be at a four-year school, but students get into graduate school two years early.
The 220-acre farm is central to that program. In a patch of countryside surrounded by suburban subdivisions, crops grow and livestock graze. But as California community colleges struggle to survive deep budget cuts and adjust to new educational priorities, the farm could soon be a thing of the past.
“Very few people understand that we’re a living laboratory,” said Leland Shapiro, the agriculture department chairman. “Unlike chemistry and physics, you can’t say, “ All right, we’re out of money this week. We’ll put everything on the shelf. We’ll come back next week.’ You can’t do that with living animals and plants.”
Pierce used to have 15 acres planted with avocados, citrus and peach trees, but when the farmworkers who had been tending the orchard retired, the college didn’t hire new laborers and the trees died, Shapiro said.
“They blamed my department. They said, ‘You didn’t maintain the trees,’” Shapiro said. “I said, ‘With what labor?’ We had zero labor.”
There are other signs of decay.
Just 25 years ago, Pierce had 450 cattle. Now, the herd numbers 11. There used to be 6,000 chickens. Now there are 33. And while Shapiro is grateful for the Annenberg Foundation grant that funds part-time student farmhands, he said it’s no substitute for the 11 full-time workers he used to have.
Ben Merkel, president of the pre-veterinary club, said that can be very frustrating for students. He’s willing to make the 75-mile drive to Pierce from his home northeast of Los Angeles, but he’s grown weary of negotiating with professors for a spot in overcrowded classrooms.
“They don’t open up courses. They don’t hire teachers. They don’t give us workers,” he said. “I could start applying to vet schools, ideally, in another year. I worry about this program being in existence in time for me to start applying.”
Shapiro also fears that when he retires in another two years, the college will let his department and the farm die.
Los Angeles Community College District Trustee Scott Svonkin said he’s committed to both Shapiro’s students and the farm. But he said he can’t ignore budgetary facts.
“The dollar that the state gives us for a class is the same for an English class or a math class as it is for a class where we have to have cows,” Svonkin said. “Cows and a teacher are more expensive than just a teacher and a book.”
The college district has lost more than $100 million in state funding since 2008. That’s meant sweeping cuts in class offerings and limits on the numbers of students allowed per class. And an increased state emphasis on core academic subjects like English, math and science -- required for transfer to state universities -- has meant less money for other programs.
Rolf Schleicher, Pierce College’s vice president of administrative services, said Shapiro’s classes are sought after. Nevertheless, state funding rules for the college as a whole place caps on how many students the program can enroll, Schleicher said.
“It’s a very difficult calculation,” he said. “The state hasn’t provided any growth funds to us in our recent history. If I grow one area, that means I have to take away from another area unless our growth levels that the state gives us are higher.”
But Jim Aschwanden, executive director of the California Agricultural Teachers’ Association, said schools such as Modesto Junior College and Butte College have met such challenges.
“When the college itself decides that this is going to be an important part of what they are and who they are, additional resources are made available. You build a program and it’s the old adage of ‘You build it and they will come,’ ” he said.
Aschwanden points out that Pierce officials have repeatedly entertained development proposals that would have spelled the disappearance of the farm into the surrounding suburbs. For instance, he remembers a squabble in the late 1980s over a scheme to turn part of the farm into a golf driving range.
These days, college officials are studying development proposals that they say are more compatible with the farm and that also might help to finance it, Schleicher said.
They’re also working on a plan to solicit donations from agriculture-related business. But he expects obtaining such funding will be a challenge.
“People remember their alma mater, where they were successful, and that’s who usually gets the $100 million building, like UCLA,” Schleicher said. “A lot of times, we are second in line, or third in line, to get some money from large donors.”