Sustaining Life

Funding the Future — The college was awarded $39.5 million in one-time state funding to build long-term sustainability for food, forestry and agricultural systems.

The brisk, steady revving of chainsaws echoes through the surrounding hillside at Cal Poly’s Swanton Pacific Ranch, as trees burned in the 2020 CZU Lightning Complex Fire are felled and processed. Crews work tirelessly, cutting what seems like an endless amount of timber.

It’s been two years since the fire swept through the ranch in Davenport, California, destroying most of its structures and infrastructure such as fencing and utilities, leaving behind a scorched, unfamiliar landscape. While much has been done behind the scenes to ensure the future of the ranch, such as removing dangerous debris and ash and securing funding to rebuild for future generations, visible signs of progress are now emerging.

"Every day is filled with hope, followed by hard work."

A resurgence of life, both natural and manmade, can be seen at the ranch. Green shoots spring from the trunks of charred trees. A thick understory grows unfettered by the once shaded tree canopy. Gleaming metal fence braces, where once wood ones stood, make way for returning livestock. Rubble from previous buildings is now cleared, replaced by newly built wooden platforms to support tent cabins overlooking the valley below that will provide temporary lodging for students attending educational trips and doing research at the ranch.

“It can be haunting to remember what it was like in the weeks after the fire,” said Swanton Pacific Ranch Director Mark Swisher, while surveying the ranch on a recent afternoon. “I am continually humbled at the support that is occurring from the local to the federal level.”

The latest financial support comes from California’s 2022-23 budget that allocated $20.3 million in one-time general funds to rebuild the ranch. The funding will be used to help offset remaining restoration costs and help fund the college’s effort to build an Education Center at the ranch. The Education Center will provide on-site learning opportunities for students to better meet the workforce development and research needs of California, enabling the college to help create actionable climate-smart solutions critically needed by the state and beyond. The extent and ferocity of recent catastrophic wildfires, including at Swanton Pacific Ranch, have elevated the need to improve the health and resiliency of forests before and after wildfire, especially in California’s coastal redwood ecosystems, as wildfires become more frequent.

In the future, students will have regular access to the Education Center through field trips, weekend enterprise classes, senior projects, undergraduate research and residential internships. In addition, access will be available to Cal Poly or visiting faculty conducting research, industry and government agency partners, and participants in seminars and short courses, including those participating in existing CAL FIRE grant programs associated with the ranch.

In the classroom, students will be taught practical lessons such as designing vegetation management plans to make forests more resilient to fire. Participants will be able to partake in fire recovery research and aid in reforestation efforts that include planting 55,000 trees across 270 acres.

“There is a long road ahead but the opportunities are endless,” said Swisher, who had only been at the ranch for nine months before the fire scorched it. “Every day is filled with hope, followed by hard work.” Of which both are seen, as sprouts of life emerge from the soot and people and nature work together to rebuild after the devastation.

Building Long-term Growth

An unprecedented $39.5 million state investment in the College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences emphasizes the significant role that sustainable agriculture will play in feeding the growing global population and reducing the environmental impacts of a changing climate.

The college is poised to provide programs that prepare future generations in sustainable agriculture practices that will build long-term stability for food and agricultural systems in the face of intensified weather events and changing climate patterns. However, additional investment in the college’s programs and infrastructure now ensures that the future demands can be met.

California is the world’s largest producer of food. More than a third of the country's vegetables and two-thirds of the country's fruits and nuts are grown in the state — making it essential that the future workforce is prepared to address challenges related to food security and meeting increasing demands.

The one-time state funding, the first of its kind in California State University history, will assist in providing the infrastructure needed to build programs to teach future generations sustainable agriculture practices. “The food, agriculture and environmental science industries foresee double-digit job growth over the next 10 years. Building climate resilience is critical to the future of farmers, food producers, and land, water and air resources,” said Dean Andrew Thulin.

California’s 2022-23 budget allocated $20.3 million in one-time general funds to rebuild Cal Poly’s Swanton Pacific Ranch and $18.75 million of $75 million earmarked for California State University farms to make equipment and infrastructure improvements to the college’s agricultural production units. The funding for Swanton Pacific Ranch in Santa Cruz County will assist the university in recovery efforts following the August 2020 CZU Lightning Complex fire that destroyed nearly all structures and forced evacuation.

“With this investment, state leaders recognize the significance of Cal Poly’s College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences in preparing the next generation of professionals to lead the food and agricultural industry into a sustainable future — and they appreciate the Learn by Doing philosophy by investing in our living laboratories and facilities,” said Dennis Albiani (Agricultural Business, '93), vice president of California Advocates.

The $18.75 million university farm funding will directly enhance hands-on learning opportunities for students and prepare them for careers that address sustainable food production and agriculture, water and drought resilience, forest health and wildfire resilience, food biosecurity, automation and energy. The funding was made possible through the collaborative effort of the four California State University campuses with agriculture colleges: Cal Poly, Cal Poly Pomona, Fresno State, and Chico State.

“Cal Poly was a significant player in securing funding in the state budget for its university farm and for the three other farms in the CSU system,” said George Soares (Agricultural Business, '66), founding partner of Kahn, Soares and Conway. “President Jeffrey Armstrong was at the core of the effort along with Cal Poly alums including Louie Brown and Dennis Albiani. This team effort is rooted in the special connection that Cal Poly alumni have with the university — when there is a need, it is up to alumni to help the university that has been so meaningful to each of us in our lives and careers.”

Looking Forward

In the College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences, more than 4,100 students are actively engaged in academic programs with direct ties to agriculture.

Students work directly on the nearly 6,000 acres on campus managing onsite operations and gaining firsthand experience that prepares them for successful careers. In addition, these facilities serve as classrooms — exposing students daily to existing challenges and preparing them to be future leaders. In recent years significant improvements have been made to enhance student hands-on learning opportunities through strategic partnerships with industry leaders who recognize the value of investing in the future. This includes the launch of the Cal Poly Strawberry Center, the Grimm Family Center for Organic Production and Research and the completely donor-funded JUSTIN and J. LOHR Center for Wine and Viticulture which opened to students this fall.

The state investment in the college will be used to replace aging farm equipment with climate-smart upgrades, enhance the Plant Sciences program with greenhouse facility upgrades, modernize dairy production and processing facilities while decreasing its environmental footprint, and enhance sustainable working landscapes on campus for the college’s livestock.

“Our industry partners have long recognized that investing in the college is critical in preparing for the future challenges that await,” Thulin said. “This unprecedented investment from the state in the college demonstrates that we are all in this together. The challenges that face a growing global population are many, but we are unified in our efforts to work toward resolving them.”


Visit Cultivate Fall 2022 to read more stories.

Related Content