Budget cuts have ‘profound effect’ at ag universities


Issue Date: September 21, 2011
By Ching Lee
Eric Lin, a plant sciences major at the University of California, Davis, harvests tomatoes at the student farm “market garden,” which generates its own income through crop sales and grants. University agricultural programs such as these are having to become more self-supporting due to lean budget times.
Photo/Ching Lee
R.W. “Raoul” Adamchak, center, coordinator of the UC Davis market garden, assists undergraduate student Natsuki Nakamura, right, and graduate student Edwina King, left, as they prepare to plant onions.
Photo/Ching Lee

At a time when many of the state's university agricultural programs are experiencing increased enrollment and seeing growing student interest, state funding cuts are forcing some schools to scale back class offerings, turn away applicants and rely more heavily on private contributions and market sales to operate campus farms.

"Budget cuts have had a profound effect on all areas of the campus," said Diane Ullman, associate dean of undergraduate academic programs at the University of California, Davis, College of Environmental and Agricultural Sciences. "It's my opinion that we can't tolerate more budget cuts because we're already cut to the bone."

She said in the last several years her office has seen the number of student applications skyrocket 70 percent to 80 percent, but admissions have had to remain relatively unchanged.

As a campus that is intensely science-driven and a college that has more agricultural production facilities than any other in the state, Ullman said it has always been a challenge trying to keep instructional equipment and technologies updated while delivering the kind of hands-on educational experience that's expected of agricultural programs.

"We've had to make a lot of cuts, and we're at a point where we have to reconsider all those facilities," she said.

Faced with 8 percent cuts for the current school year—and nearly 20 percent since 2007—Charles Boyer, dean of Jordan College of Agricultural Sciences and Technology at California State University, Fresno, said the school is now teaching more students with fewer resources, as enrollment has gone up almost 40 percent in the last six years.

Spending reductions have resulted in significant tuition increases and fewer classes being offered, he said. They have also affected how the school farm is run. In the late 1990s, 75 percent of the farm's budget came from the state, the rest from product sales. These days, state dollars make up about 20 percent of the farm's budget.

"So we've had to become more entrepreneurial in our approach," Boyer said.

Having to run the school farm more like a business has exposed students to real-world business and agricultural practices, he said, but the downside is the farm also bears all the risks of a business.

"We're the same as any other segment of agriculture," Boyer said. "If corn goes up to $7 a bushel, guess what? We're stuck with that too. If gasoline goes up to $4.50 a gallon, we're paying those prices. If the almond price crashes, we're taking that lower value."

R.W. "Raoul" Adamchak, coordinator for the UC Davis "market garden," said he thinks running a self-sustaining operation "provides a more realistic experience for the students." A part of the campus student farm, the market garden generates its own income through product sales and grants.

"Things cost money, and these are part of the expenses of farming, so it has to be factored in. They have to make decisions based on the cost of things and the returns," he said.

At California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, the College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences has had to reduce its farm operations budget and collapse one of the farm maintenance positions, said Dean David Wehner.

The 6,000-acre Cal Poly farm, much of it pastureland, with livestock and horticulture units, requires constant maintenance and care, he said, and with a budget shortfall, "it just means things don't get taken care of quite as quickly as they had been in the past."

As the university farm administrator at California State University, Chico, Associate Dean David Daley of the College of Agriculture said state funding pays only for the farm's staffing and a bit of maintenance but does not cover the cost of running it.

The university foundation does make money through sales of crops from the farm, he noted, and those proceeds typically would go back to infrastructure and equipment upkeep and improvements, but lately they've been used to help offset state budget cuts.

University officials also express concern about their colleges having to increase class sizes and merge sections, majors and sometimes entire departments in order to keep up with growing student demand in the face of shrinking budgets.

For students like Natsuki Nakamura, who is majoring in environmental science and management in her third year at UC Davis, that means having less contact with faculty and a harder time getting into classes to fulfill graduation requirements.

She noted that a geology class she needs for her major was canceled last spring and is not being offered this fall. With the tuition increase, she said she was hoping to finish a year early, but acknowledged her plans could be delayed if she can't get into certain classes.

Tom Baldwin, UC Riverside dean of the College of Natural and Agricultural Sciences, said the university is "moving heaven and earth" to accommodate all students and deliver the curriculum so they can finish their degrees, but with diminishing resources, "we're working very hard to maintain the quality of the product."

Daley said it would be "a disservice to all of agriculture" if universities were not able to provide students with the necessary skills and hands-on educational experience they need to move into their respective agricultural professions.

Students will simply have a "narrower set of experiences," Wehner said. And there will probably be fewer of them because the overall CSU enrollment is being lowered. As agriculture becomes increasingly high-tech, cash-starved universities may also not be able to keep up with providing the most up-to-date equipment and facilities for learning, he added.

"I think that could eventually hurt us," Wehner said.

Daley said Chico State is increasingly looking to agricultural partners to fill in funding gaps and create opportunities. For example, Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. has donated cattle, feed and money for processing equipment that have benefited the school's beef and animal science programs, he noted.

(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at clee@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.