Dec 06, 2019

Paving over campus farmland

One acre of vineyard can produce 8,000 bottles of wine or $80,000 in revenue for Fresno State. Six acres were paved for Lot Q.
Juan Villa / The Collegian

Faculty and industry leaders say that Fresno State is a microcosm of the forces that are turning prime farmland into suburban sprawl across the San Joaquin Valley.

From Bakersfield to Stockton, the choice for city leaders is not an easy one: As land becomes more and more precious a commodity, should it be used to house or feed the people?

The question is nearly the same when planning the future of one of the nation’s most agriculturally productive universities.

“We have a finite amount of land and a campus that is growing,” said Charles Boyer, Dean of the College of Agricultural Sciences and Technology. “Sometimes it’s about trade-offs.”

Consider what has been paved in just over a decade and a half:

Eleven acres of sheep pasture lost to the Highway 168 expansion project. Six acres of vineyard for Lot Q parking. Forty-five acres of corn to the Save Mart Center and Student Recreation Center. Another 45 acres will become Campus Pointe. An additional 27 acres of wheat land for a new equine facility.

If 129 acres seems like a trifle of the 1,011 Class 1 acres of farm land on campus, professor emeritus Vincent Petrucci says people need to take into account the production value of just one of those acres.

In the average wine grape vineyard, for example, one acre can produce roughly 10 tons of grapes. At 160 gallons of wine per ton of grapes, that translates into 8,000 bottles of wine. Or, $80,000 per acre, at an average of $10 per bottle.

Petrucci, who taught enology and viticulture for 45 years before retiring in 1994, said that preservation of the farmland should be a primary concern for the university and its students.

“The premise for which our school is famous is the application of classroom learning,” he said. “The reason many students comes to Fresno State is for that opportunity.

“I tell students to practice the kind of agriculture they came here to learn. The most important contribution they could make is to fight with all of their might to preserve the College of Agriculture farm lab. That’s what I preach to every one of them.”

Boyer, among the first to concede that the growth of the campus has to be weighed when it comes to land use decisions, agrees with Petrucci. Fresno State offers something few other universities can boast.

“Having farmland next door is increasingly rare on college campuses,” Boyer said. “Students can walk across the street to our working laboratory; students are able to see everything from planting to production.”

John Mahoney, director of the Real Estate and Land Use Institute, gave a 45 minute interview regarding the perspective of those who believe that growth must sometimes encroach on farmland, but refused to go on record.

That Fresno State’s farm is economically self-sustaining is another unique feature of the school. It is the only university in the U.S. with a bonded winery and raisin processing plant. The department was able to recently purchase a tractor out of the revenue from production of food and fiber crops. Students are also given opportunities to take on projects working the land and share in the revenue, often funding their tuition, Petrucci said.

Arthur Parham, chair of the Department of Animal Sciences, is also an advocate for the farm and wonders why parking covers nearly one-third of the campus.

“I think that the university has become complacent about defending one of its strongest programs,” Parham said. “People have gotten to the point where they assume that ag can just get by.”

Parham, who came to Fresno State as a freshman in 1967 remembers when everything east of Maple Avenue on campus was farmland — when the main campus was 167 acres. It now covers 396.

“I don’t how to make this issue live for young people today,” Parham said. “I grew up in open land. I’m not comfortable in the city. And until you have walked and worked in the fields of Central California, I’m not sure you can really understand what it is like to see them gone.

“We are who we are as a university because of this farm. We train people to deliver food and fiber to the citizens of this country at the lowest price. If we don’t continue to teach high-tech methods of production we have no hope of feeding 8 billion people on this planet.”

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