Campus farms adjust operations during pandemic

Issue Date: June 10, 2020
Patrons buy 10-ear bags of sweet corn at the Fresno State farm. College campus farms around California have changed the way they operate in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Photo/Dennis Pollock

Grapes don't pick and crush themselves. Sweet corn doesn't self-harvest. And peaches don't just land in your lap. On at least four college campuses around California, farming goes on just the same as it does for commercial operations—changed but not stopped by a pandemic.

At Fresno State University, Chico State, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and the University of California, Davis, COVID-19 has not put an end to work on thousands of acres of land where production agriculture is taught.

All the campuses are still wrestling with how they will reopen, but there is hope that hands-on practices can be a part of the schools' resumption of classes—most of them online—in the fall.

"Farming doesn't stop," said AnnMarie Cornejo, communications specialist with the Cal Poly College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences.

But markets change.

At Cal Poly, that means more citrus finding its way to a food bank because of the need to meet demand, and there has been heightened demand for curbside pickup of produce boxes and flowers.

The coming of COVID-19 has brought suspension of tours at campus farms.

"It's closed most times," said Dave Daley, administrator of the Chico State farm. "It's like a ghost town."

Fresno State and UC Davis have also ceased hosting tours for now, and all are looking at how they can give hands-on, in-person instruction on their campuses.

An advantage of the agricultural experience, said Katharina Ullmann, director of the UC Davis student farm, is that such instruction can frequently take place outdoors. Research indicates there is less risk of spreading COVID-19 in an outdoor setting, compared to an indoor classroom.

At Davis, demand has grown for community-supported agriculture boxes of produce and flowers, as the amount of produce going from the campus farm to dining services has declined.

Research continues on the campuses. At UC Davis, for example, that includes looking at wildflower planting for pollinators and breeding for organic systems.

And some traditions continue.

At Fresno State, this year's opening of the sale of popular, campus-grown sweet corn that draws people to the campus market exceeded the crowds of 200 to 250 in past years. It drew 320 shoppers this year, who stood in winding lines that resembled a Disneyland scene. Most wore face masks; all were told to use a hand sanitizer; they maintained social distancing; and most picked up prepackaged bags of corn.

At Chico State, Daley said he is trying to come up with a way to hold a major event on that campus: a U-pick gathering in a peach orchard expected in August.

"It's Grandma bringing grandkids," he said. "Every year, there's almost a carnival atmosphere. We're looking at models for how we can do it this year."

Some produce from the Chico State farm goes to a food pantry on campus, and the farm also has a small community-supported agriculture operation. On Fridays, meat is sold from a location on the farm.

Student employees at campus farms are taking added precautions against the virus—social distancing, masks and the like.

It hasn't gotten in the way of innovation.

At Fresno State, just after opening sweet corn sales, the campus market debuted canned versions of the campus's Tailgate Red, White and Rosé wines, which will be sold at Fresno State sporting events when they resume. The 375-milliliter cans equate to 12.7 ounces or half a bottle of wine.

The campus winery continued wine club sales, providing curbside pickup for club members.

"This has been a challenging past few months at the winery," said Kevin Smith, Fresno State Winery sales and marketing manager. "Bottling days have been hectic, to say the least. Events have come to a standstill. Sales have shifted from stores to online. But the fruit doesn't stop growing, and the wines insist on getting better in the barrels. Life goes on in the winery."

Mark Salwasser, the campus farm manager at Fresno State, said there is a reduced population of student employees, but the farm and the Gibson Farm Market continue to operate. Though there are normally 130 to 145 paid employees, the number now stands at 100.

"We're keeping our workers separated as much as possible," Salwasser said. "In the ag operations office, we normally have five people, but only two are there right now, including myself. The others who work with our budget and administrative needs are working from home."

He said strawberries were grown and sold at the market, which is open daily for the first time in several years.

The Fresno State farm is transitioning its olive orchard into organic status and is in the final stage of a three-year phase, which will be completed in August.

"We grow three varieties: Koroniki, Arobosana and Arbequina," Salwasser said, "and those olives lend themselves to being organic because they don't have a lot of insect issues, and the returns are significant for organic olive oil. We also wanted some more organic ground on the farm."

(Dennis Pollock is a reporter in Fresno. He may be contacted at agcompollock@yahoo.com.)

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




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