SRJC’s Ag Department Evolves with Sonoma County’s Changing Farmscape

Written By: Tim Tesconi
Published: January 2, 2020

Ag Department celebrates 50 years as a partner providing talent to the agriculture industry

When the Santa Rosa Junior College Agriculture Department was established 50 years ago, the livestock and dairy industries ruled Sonoma County agriculture, producing the prime rib, butter and sour cream that fed Americans’ meat-and-potatoes appetite.

But that all began to change in the early 1970s when an emerging wine industry, coupled with the increasing awareness of a healthier Mediterranean diet, transformed Sonoma County’s economy, landscape and way-of-life.  Cow country became Wine Country. Many dairy and beef cattle ranches in the northern reaches of the county were converted to vineyards, producing premium wine grapes that would earn a prominent place on the world’s wine stage.

Through it all, the agriculture department at SRJC, which was established in 1969 with livestock man John Edwards as the one and only instructor, adapted to the sweeping changes on the county’s farms and ranches. The curriculum moved from an emphasis on animal science classes to viticulture, winemaking and specialty crop production like olives for oil production.

Interestingly, among the leading fields of study today are the veterinary technician program, which trains students to work in the county’s fast-growing animal healthcare industry and the horticulture program where students find work in nurseries and landscape services for municipalities and the urban sector.

A sign of the fast-changing times: the college is offering students opportunities to grow crops like hemp and Japanese indigo – all aimed at keeping courses relevant and farmers on the land.

“Agriculture in Sonoma County is evolving and the SRJC agriculture department is evolving right along with it. We must be nimble and adapt to meet the demands of students who want to join the agricultural workforce or start farming on their own,” said Benjamin Goldstein, SRJC’s Dean of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Culinary Arts.

SRJC animal science instructor Amy Housman is one of those on the frontlines educating students and adapting courses to meet the trends in the agricultural community. She says the agriculture department plays a vital, if changing role, in developing the talent to help agriculture thrive.

“I see the SRJC agriculture department’s place in the community as two-part,” said Housman. “We provide education for the professional development of those working in agriculture and for those who are interested in starting a career in agriculture. I also think we serve as a bridge or a connection for those who want to get into the local agriculture industry.”

Goldstein, formerly a dean at the Los Angeles Trade Technical College, has been dean of the SRJC agriculture department for more than two years. He is orchestrating many changes in the department and at Shone Farm, the 365- acre ranch property near Forestville that serves as a hands-on learning ground for students enrolled in classes ranging from viticulture and winemaking to organic vegetable production and forestry.

The property, formerly a government communications outpost, was acquired by SRJC in 1972, becoming the college’s centerpiece of agriculture education. Plans are underway to move all ag faculty offices and classrooms from the main SRJC campus on Mendocino Avenue to Shone Farm by the end of 2020, creating a satellite campus devoted to agriculture education.

Goldstein oversees a department that has 3,000 students taking at least one class in the Ag & Natural Resources division with another 1,300 students in the Culinary Arts. There are 400 full-time students in agriculture and 74 faculty members, which include the eight full-time professors and the many adjunct instructors teaching courses.

It’s all a long way from the early 1960s when Charles Belden, Dean of Vocational Studies at SRJC, began floating the idea of an agriculture program at the junior college, recognizing the economic value and importance of Sonoma County’s leading industry. J. Wesley Jamison, the vocational agriculture instructor at Santa Rosa High School and a powerful voice in the community, joined Belden in the efforts to establish the ag program, which has become an integral part of the county’s agriculture culture.

When it comes to the importance of nimbly changing with the times, Goldstein gets no argument from Steve Olson, one of the first agriculture instructors at SRJC, who became chairman of the agriculture department and was eventually promoted to administration positions at SRJC. When he retired in 2007, Olson was Dean of Occupational Education and Economic Development.

During his time as department chairman, Olson directed the ag program to keep pace with the county’s farming industry.

“Agriculture has changed so much in Sonoma County,” said Olson, 76, a native of Santa Rosa who grew up during the county’s heyday of livestock ranching. “In order for the SRJC ag department to survive it has to change with the times.”

Even in retirement, Olson keeps a watchful eye on the agriculture department and the college’s Shone Farm where the main road is named Steve Olson Lane. His wise counsel and perspective are valued in helping shape the college’s future.

Olson, who was an ag teacher in Ferndale, became the second instructor in the college’s agriculture department, arriving in 1970 to work side by side with his friend John Edwards to build the department and community support. Olson and Edwards had become friends while studying agriculture at Fresno State University.

During the early days of the Edwards-Olson era, SRJC ag students became ambassadors for the program, staging judging contests for 4-H and FFA members and holding annual feeder lamb sales for junior fair exhibitors. It was also a time when SRJC made a name for itself with its award-winning livestock and dairy judging teams that competed nationally.

When Edwards left SRJC to pursue an advanced degree, he was replaced by Jim Porter, who was the ag teacher at Santa Rosa High School.  Like Edwards, Porter, an expert on livestock, taught animal science while coaching livestock judging teams and connecting with the county’s ranching community.

The SRJC ag department was a draw for the region’s best and brightest students, many of them former 4-H and FFA members, who would transfer after two years to U.C. Davis, Fresno State, Chico State and Cal Poly to complete their agricultural education, with many of them becoming ag teachers themselves.

It was under Olson’s chairmanship that Richard Thomas, an ag instructor at Healdsburg High School, was hired in 1973, to teach viticulture. It was a time when the industry was exploding, growing by thousands of acres of vineyards every year and offering an abundance of job opportunities.

Thomas, who realized Sonoma County’s future was in wine, not livestock, had become an expert on all things winegrape, going back to school to earn a viticulture degree from UC Davis. During his 28 years at SRJC, Thomas sent thousands of his students out to plant vineyards or manage North Coast vineyards.  When he retired in 2001, he estimated that 70 percent of Sonoma County’s vineyards, now encompassing some 60,000 acres, were either owned or managed by one of the students passing through his viticulture classes at SRJC.

“There aren’t too many vineyards in Sonoma County that were not planted by one of my students,” Thomas said.

Today, Dr. Merilark Padgett-Johnson is SRJC’s viticulture instructor and program coordinator, continuing to educate students about grape growing. She also oversees the 91- acre vineyard at Shone Farm, which is managed by Mark Sanchietti, a member of a respected agricultural family that has farmed in Sonoma County for a century. The vineyard is profitable, generating income that helps fund the overall farm operation.

While the livestock and dairy industries have continued to decline in value and prominence, the wine industry has gone gangbusters, becoming the county’s most prominent and visible agricultural endeavor, annually valued at more than $10 billion to the county’s economy.

SRJC plays a pivotal role in providing skilled workers for vineyard management and winery operations with 1,000 students taking classes in vines, wines or both, said Dr. Kevin Sea, coordinator of the wine studies program in the SRJC agriculture department.

Many students are focused on getting jobs in the wine industry, Sea said. They take courses that lead to certificates in enology, wine marketing or wine hospitality and direct-to-consumer sales. Some students already have jobs at wineries but want to increase their knowledge to be more valuable employees for an industry they love. Sea calls these students “skill builders” and describes them as dedicated and passionate.

“Students are young and old, with our age range from 18 to 80 years old,” said Sea. Now under development, he said, is a tasting room course to train workers for jobs in the hundreds of tasting rooms on the North Coast.

“We’ve heard from the industry about the tremendous demand for tasting room employees,” said Sea. He said the training will be done at the proposed John and Terri Balletto Tasting Room, which is planned at Shone Farm. Seed money for the Balletto Tasting Room was raised at the 2016 AgStravaganza. Additional funds will be needed to complete the facility.

Sea said the other exciting development is that Santa Rosa Junior College is partnering with Sonoma State University to offer a four-year degree in wine business and marketing. Starting in the fall of 2020, students can take winemaking, viticulture and general education classes at SRJC then transfer to Sonoma State for two years of wine marketing, finance and other classes to earn a bachelor’s degree.

Animal science is still part of the curriculum but much different than it was when the ag department was founded in 1969. In 2018, Goldstein caused a stir when he temporarily removed the college-owned livestock and horses at Shone Farm as part of a plan to revitalize the animal science program.  Goldstein said it was a chance to rejuvenate pastures, re-examine the academic program offerings and renovate the livestock facilities including upgrading the Jim Porter Animal Science Center, a pole barn slated to be revamped this year

Housman, the animal science instructor, said the changes in curriculum and at Shone Farm itself reflect what’s happening with the county’s livestock industry.

“In Sonoma County, small scale production is prevalent and with this comes niche marketing: grass-fed, organic, farm to table. There is also growing interest in the ability to mitigate climate change with the use of grazing practices,” said Housman.  Instead of classes like beef cattle management or sheep production students will take a course titled Sustainable Animal Production that covers the management of livestock and poultry in pasture-based systems.

“I would also like to incorporate a rotation of different species of animals through the farm. Some potential projects being discussed are pasture-raised meat birds, feeder pigs and goats or lambs,” said Housman. These animals would also be used as enterprise projects where students would manage the animals outside of class and then send them to market or use them to produce products under the Shone Farm label.

Goldstein said his focus and guiding mission is to support the department faculty in keeping SRJC agriculture engaged and relevant, while being quick to respond to industry changes. He said the agriculture department has become a beloved institution over the last half century and he wants it to remain so for the next 50 years and beyond.

“The SRJC Agriculture and Natural Resources Department and Shone Farm are the crown jewels of agricultural education in Sonoma County. We’ve grown from a small program in 1969 to now serving 3000 students annually under the instruction of the best agriculture faculty in the California Community College System. It’s an honor to be a part of this legacy of excellence and I’m excited for the next 50 years,” said Goldstein.

 

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