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Harvest of disappointment

The decision to close Cal Poly Organic Farm's CSA program came as a shock

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ONE LAST BAG :  Cal Poly professor Marty Rippens and his wife, longtime subscribers to the Cal Poly Organic Farm CSA program, recently left with their last bag of produce. - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • ONE LAST BAG : Cal Poly professor Marty Rippens and his wife, longtime subscribers to the Cal Poly Organic Farm CSA program, recently left with their last bag of produce.
In an open-sided yellow shed at the edge of the Cal Poly Organic Farm, young Eli Maxwell enthusiastically helped his mother Sarah load their box of freshly picked fruit and vegetables, saying, “The tomatoes taste like candy!” For paying members of the organic farm’s Community Supported Agriculture program, it’s an activity they and dozens of other families have enjoyed every week.

To some Cal Poly decision-makers, what these families carry to their cars is a box of expensive produce the college no longer wants to subsidize. But others argue that the far-reaching benefits of the program aren’t pricey at all—they’re priceless. To them, the Aug. 17 announcement that the CSA program will end on Aug. 30 shows a lack of understanding about sustainability.

Dr. John Phillips, the longtime faculty advisor for the Cal Poly Organic Farm who retired last year, said he’s disappointed by the decision and the way it was made.

“The CSA method of providing produce and experience to students has been very effective,” he explained. “It’s been an important way to put education first and provide a hands-on learning experience.

“It appears the community-building aspects weren’t considered—the connections across the university, with the students from all different departments, the alumni, the volunteers, the local schools, the local organic farmers. Unfortunately, it’s not possible to place a dollar value on the social aspect of the experience,” the retired professor added.

The cost of the program was one reason cited by the Cal Poly Organic Farm’s current faculty advisor, Dr. David Headrick, and the head of the Horticulture and Crop Science Department, Dr. John Peterson, in an e-mail letter notifying CSA subscribers the program will be discontinued. The letter also said ending the program will allow students more flexibility to study new production and marketing practices.

In the shed with the vegetable boxes, engineering students and CSA members Max Ullrich and Greg Chavoor weren’t convinced.

“I laughed when I read the e-mail that said, ‘We intend to discontinue our CSA project so that we can provide our students even greater opportunities for learning,’” Ullrich said. “That doesn’t even make any sense.”

Chavoor said he likes “getting random vegetables and figuring out what we can make.” He added, “It’s nice to know we’re buying from here, and not buying garlic from China.”

His comments were echoed by other CSA members coming to pick up their weekly box of produce for the last time: “I enjoy being able to eat local organic vegetables that are high quality. And coming here is fun! I’m so sad it’s ending,” said Cameron Shields as she placed her tomatoes, green beans, lettuce, and potatoes in a cloth bag.

Former student Terry Hooker helped start the CSA program 10 years ago. Hooker questioned the decision-making process, which he said was done in isolation, without input from students or faculty members.

“If they were willing to communicate with the members, the students, staff, and volunteers, there was really a possibility to be inclusive and to come up with a creative solution,” he said. “Instead, it’s a loss for the whole community because so many connections are being severed. It’s a setback for Cal Poly.”

Professor Rob Rutherford, who teaches holistic management, watched CSA members gather their last weekly produce allotment.

“With holistic management, you get everyone around the table and think deeply about what you value, about what you want things to be like 25 to 50 years from now,” Rutherford said.

“You see those little ones running around? They should be considered too, in a perfect world,” he added. “I would make the decision differently. That’s the part that’s most disappointing: the decision-making process.”

Another benefit of the organic farm’s CSA program has been support for local organic growers who are sometimes called upon to help fill the weekly boxes. Roberto Le Fort, an organic farmer in Creston, sold Cal Poly some of his basil and rainbow carrots—as he has for seven years—the day before the closure announcement.

A letter posted on the organic farm’s website advises local organic farmers, “We will no longer need to purchase products from you.” But Le Fort hadn’t heard the news until contacted by New Times.

“In some ways that will make it harder for me,” Le Fort said. “Cal Poly has helped small farmers like us. They’ve really supplemented my income.”

According to Dean of the College of Agriculture, Food, and Environmental Sciences David Wehner, “We felt the students could get different opportunities if we moved away from vegetable distribution.”

Wehner said in an interview that he and the department are “100 percent committed” to the organic farm and hope to be able to move it closer to Highland Avenue to improve its visibility.

He also said he’ll be meeting with a donor shortly after the CSA shuts down on Aug. 30 to talk about funding for a farm store that would offer all the college’s agricultural products—including produce from the organic farm—for sale to the public.

Is the decision to close the CSA related to any conflict between the organic and non-organic programs at Cal Poly? “Absolutely not,” the dean said. “We’re not changing the organic farm. We have high hopes to move it and make it more visible.”

In the organic farm’s rows of bright orange Sungold tomatoes, 2-year-old Owen Rippens plucked a ripe one and put it in his mouth with a smile as his mother, Grace Yeh, supervised. A little girl in a sundress moved slowly through the basil plants, carefully harvesting a few leaves and handing them to her mother.

As they walked past softly clucking chickens toward their car, she looked back at the lush crops and said, “I’m really going to miss this place.”

Contributing writer Kathy Johnston can be reached at kjohnston@newtimesslo.com.

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