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New Greenhouse and Campus Farm Will Grow Opportunities

By Mark C. Anderson 

Fundraising and feasibility studies are underway for greenhouse and farm teaching facilities at Cal State Monterey Bay. In other words, Otters are going to get their paws dirty. This is outstanding news, especially for those connected to the College of Science and its Agricultural Plant and Soil Sciences and Mechatronics Engineering programs.

Current tentative timelines and project cost estimates for the Greenhouse Complex and Farm are in place. The location depends on pending approvals. The proposed greenhouses could potentially occupy the land east of the Science Instructional Lab Annex, Building 50, and across the street from the existing Chapman Academic Science Center building. The proposed ag field could end up adjacent to the former Watershed Institute, across from University Center.

While those elements are TBD, a few things are certain: 

One, a teaching farm and four greenhouses on around seven acres of campus land will equal empowering outcomes for students and faculty — current and prospective alike — and the wider area’s agricultural community.

Two, over $400,000 has been secured, with sponsorship opportunities in the works to draw more support. A U.S. Department of Agriculture-National Institute of Food and Agriculture NextGen grant, a program funded by the Biden Administration’s Inflation Reduction Act, and donations from community philanthropists David and Susan Gill and agribusiness Wilbur-Ellis are committed to date.

Another certainty: An increasingly popular agriculture plant and soil science program — at a university built on the power of experiential learning — can’t wait for a place to experiment with everything from sustainable pest control to moisture management.

Hands-on Experience

Thomas Horvath, interim dean for the College of Science, emphasizes the importance of access to real-life growing environments for an ag program that’s one of the campus’ fastest-growing. 

“The College of Science has a focus on providing meaningful hands-on experience in all programs,” he says. “It’s particularly important for our ag studies to have a strong hands-on focus.”

The program also includes a majority of first-generation college students from farm working backgrounds learning crop physiology and life cycles, and the role of soil, water, nutrient and pest management on crop quality, yield, sustainability, and profitability.

Classes impacted by the project are numerous. Courses like Plant Propagation, Weed Science and Technology, Plant Pathology, and Soil Resource Management are among the many which stand to benefit.

Horvath adds that literal field trips to Salinas Valley farms have been (and will remain) helpful, but demand a lot of time and unwieldy logistics. 

“The farm and greenhouses will allow faculty to develop new pedagogies and new classes they just can’t do now,” he says. “We get by with farm visits and low-tech solutions — like raised beds — but that only gets a student so far. If we can get them designing and testing things like irrigation, that’s going to benefit students and the overall ag industry.” 

A less apparent element at work: With those facilities in place, CSUMB suddenly becomes more competitive in securing funding and recruiting new faculty, which unlocks a whole other range of cascading benefits.

“If you’re running an ag and soil program, understanding that a farm and greenhouse is good to have is an easy connection to make,” Horvath says. “But the impacts for things like relationships with Salinas growers and the start of programs like mechatronics are less obvious.”

Rapidly Expanding Program

Not that other self-evident benefits are anything to overlook. 

“Testing robot design on a concrete floor — versus field conditions with mud and rain and sensors getting dirty — is one example of the real-life conditions we want students to conceptualize their work in,” he says.

JP Dundore-Arias serves as assistant professor of plant pathology and Bob and Sue Johnson Professor, and is involved prominently in the farm-greenhouse project. 

He points out any discussion of the endeavor is incomplete without first talking about the Department of Biology and Chemistry’s Agricultural Plant and Soil Science major, which he coordinates and helped found. It has increased exponentially in enrollment.

“You gotta take it back to 2020,” he says, to a mid-lockdown moment when the department got enough support from the university and the Bob and Sue Johnson Endowment to launch the major with a handful of area students who could complete two years at community college followed by two at CSUMB.

“The real purpose of the program is to develop a pipeline for students to graduate with degrees and preparation that allow them to pursue jobs they couldn’t with an associate’s degree,” he says.

Ambassadors in Their Fields

Dundore-Arias goes on to note the tremendous growth of the discipline to date has inspired the addition of a four-year program. 

“We’re becoming a popular degree, which is why we’re adding resources to support the major,” he says. “That expansion comes with a lot of responsibility to increase areas of knowledge — in consultation with industry partners — where they see more need for talent.”

The first cohort graduated in Spring 2022, with each graduate securing permanent positions before caps and gowns went on. Outstanding alumni already at work include three graduates each for Wilbur-Ellis, Taylor Farms and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. 

Otters are also contributing mightily to local produce powers Tanimura & Antle, Dole Vegetables, Green Valley Farm Supply, D’Arrigo, Braga Fresh Family Farms, Driscoll’s, Monterey Mushrooms, Sakata Seeds, Santa Maria Seeds, Mori, deVan Sealants, Monterey Wine Company and Dynapack Harvesting.

In those roles, those Otters act as more than vital employees, as Dundore-Arias highlights.

“Our alumni are ambassadors,” he says. “They’re cheerleaders in the community, talking to their bosses and other folks about the importance of the program and the facilities.”

Andrew Lawson, CSUMB’s provost and vice president for Academic Affairs, is eager to see Otters developing things like the next generation of mechanical weeders and planters on university land. 

Leaders in Innovation

He also provides big-picture perspective as the evolution of the project gets going in earnest. When CSUMB students begin combining classroom learning experience with lab and research in the field, on campus, they’ll be able to intensify a focus on area agriculture unavailable anywhere, including higher education ag leaders like UC Davis and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. 

"The Salinas Valley is known for its specialty crops and being a leader in agricultural technology," he says. "With expanded facilities to serve our agricultural degree programs and research, we have the opportunity to work with local industry leaders to lead innovation in the region."

CSUMB President Vanya Quiñones expands on that thought. 

"As we grow our Agricultural Plant and Soil Sciences program and launch our new Mechatronics Engineering program in the fall, we need to ensure that we have dedicated spaces for our students to gain hands-on experience,” she says, “and places for both students and faculty to conduct research that will support the unique agriculture in our region

Source : csumb.edu

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