Allow internships at SDSU-owned reserves

by Randy Wilde

A California State University such as San Diego State is meant to be a hub of practical knowledge, connecting scientists, researchers and students for the community in which they learn, live and work. Although it may seem unlikely in such a dry region, San Diego County has a strong agricultural industry. Our county has the 12th largest farm economy in the nation and produces a $5.1 billion annual yield. And yet, agricultural coursework and research has failed to germinate at the CSU that serves the area. Exciting opportunities to do research and hands-on learning in the field of agriculture have demonstrated considerable student interest only to wilt before bearing fruit.

To demonstrate one example, I’ll tell you a story. In the spring of 2008, Ph.D. Lecturer for the Asia Pacific Studies Department, Dr. David Larom, began a years-long search for a plot of land to grow some food. He began his search on campus, but was eventually directed to an agricultural inholding owned by the SDSU Research Foundation within the 4,422 acre Santa Margarita Ecological Reserve.

The reserve is located about an hour north of San Diego near Fallbrook on the Riverside / San Diego County Line. The College of Sciences has been put in charge of managing orange and avocado orchards on the property, and has subcontracted the work to a private company. The groves are managed conventionally, complete with chemical pesticides and fertilizers, and sold on the commodities market for just cents a pound a few times per year. This system is simple to manage and yields a modest yet reliable profit.

But Santa Margarita is an ecological reserve with the stated goal “to keep the property in its natural state for the preservation and protection of the native plants, animals and habitat, and for related educational and research purposes.” Conventional monoculture with all of its chemicals and machinery hardly seems a fitting way to preserve an Eden of Southern California biodiversity.

Field station administrators were cooperative in trying to help Larom and his team of student interns set up a small-scale organic farming project at the site. They were given an acre for row crops and offered an opportunity to transition the orange groves and a portion of the avocado groves to organic. There were even plans in the works to market the produce with the “Aztec Farms” brand at the weekly farmers market and to SDSU Dining Services and Aztec Shops.

However, further meetings with top administrators at Aztec Shops and the SDSU Research Foundation eventually made clear the bureaucracy’s disappointing reluctance to “fix what ain’t broke.” Aztec Farms produce was not deemed sellable because of the SDSU Research Foundation’s status as a nonprofit, a rather hypocritical claim when profits are already generated by the College of Sciences-operated groves. Another more practical concern was that although profits could be much greater with the organic Aztec Farms plan, management and shipments would be labor-intensive, costly and logistically challenging in comparison to the current simplistic technique. Ultimately, the project would have to be funded by a research grant, a difficult and shortsighted measure.

These challenges have completely stalled the Aztec Farms project for the near future. However, SDSU actually operates quite a few field stations. In addition to Santa Margarita, the SDSU Research Foundation runs Sky Oaks Field Station, Fortuna Mountain Research Reserve and Tijuana River National Estuarine Research Reserve. SDSU also owns a number of empty lots closer to campus. Just on the other side of Interstate 8 is a stretch of land known as Adobe Falls. Plans for a faculty and staff housing project have stalled and the plot remains vacant. Another empty piece of land sits at the bottom of a canyon on College Avenue just south of Montezuma Road. Interest has been expressed in using the land for an organic garden.

It’s obvious SDSU is endowed with considerable potential for student agricultural research and production opportunities. Wouldn’t it be great to have actual produce from a real farm at our “farmers market” and a truly healthy, sustainable food option on campus? What if that food was the result of student learning and labor, or even the fruit of your own hard work, sold to fundraise student projects at the university?

Small projects are springing up around campus as the result of hard work by passionate students. If all students could be made aware of the underutilized assets lying fallow around campus, the demand for sustainable agricultural programs and coursework would become overwhelming. As a campus that cares deeply about sustainability, food justice and the surrounding community, SDSU will move in the right direction, with or without the larger bureaucracy. If the business-as-usual climate remains hostile to innovation and positive change, this movement will be slow. But if the SDSU Research Foundation, administration and students can all align behind these initiatives, a bounty of learning, action and outreach would blossom faster than you could say “grow.”

—Randy Wilde is an international security and conflict resolution senior.

—The views expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Daily Aztec.