By Vicky Boyd
San Joaquin Delta College’s agricultural program, which only a few years ago was gasping for life, appears to have turned the corner with completion of the new livestock pavilion and the hiring of two new ag faculty.
Nevertheless, supporters say the program has yet to reach its full potential and return to the local draw for ag education it once was.
“It’s really exciting,” said Donald Drake, Delta College farm manager and a college alum himself. “Don’t get me wrong – we still have a long way to go. We still have a lot of heavy lifting to go, but I think we’re on the right track. We have a good team assembled, and we’re up to the task and just have to keep pushing forward.”
San Joaquin Farm Bureau President David Strecker, a Delta alum, said he is optimistic about the ag program’s future.
“If you look at where Delta College’s program was just a couple of years ago to where it is now, it’s obviously heading in the right direction,” he said. “They needed more faculty, so they hired two new faculty members. They needed new facilities, so they built the new barn and are making upgrades to the facilities.”
SJFB has been an ardent supporter of Delta College’s ag program over the years, and Strecker said Farm Bureau will continue to advocate for local ag educational opportunities.
“The sky’s the limit where the program could go, but we’re definitely heading in the right direction,” he said.
New and improved
The improvements to which Drake and Strecker referred include a 13,125-square-foot barn complex that was recently completed at the college’s Manteca farm just west of Highway 99. In addition to having animal pens, the steel blue structure also includes feed storage and office space. It is about three times the size of the college’s old red barn, which was recently razed, Drake said.
Currently, Caltrans restricts the size of signs the college can post on the frontage road entrance to the Manteca farm. In coming months, the college plans to paint a much larger name and logo on the barn to alert drivers of the new facilities.
As part of the construction project, which carried an estimated cost of $4.4 million, the two sets of classrooms on the farm also were upgraded.
One was split, with half converted into lab space and the other half featuring student desks, Drake said. The other classroom remained in a more traditional setup but received new paint and freshening up.
The construction funding came from the $250 million Measure L bond, which county voters passed in 2004.
In addition, the college hired two new ag faculty members who begin this semester. Travis Cardoso, who taught agriculture and was an FFA adviser at Hughson High School, will head the animal sciences program. Jessica Bishop Cardoso, who taught agriculture and was an FFA adviser at Central Valley High School in Ceres, will lead the plant sciences and horticulture program.
New faculty, new programs
The hiring of faculty with high school ag backgrounds was deliberate, said Delta College Chancellor Omid Pourzanjani.
“It’s going to be really helpful for us to build a bridge to the high school ag programs,” he said. “I think this builds a pipeline, for sure.”
Also in the works is a pest control advisor certificate program, which was prompted by industry input.
Another change is allowing students in other studies to meet their science, technology, engineering and math requirements by taking ag classes. This will expose them to a field they may not have been aware of before, Pourzanjani said.
As part of the ag program’s five-year plan developed during the summer, college leaders have begun creating partnerships with local high schools, said Dannell Hepworth, dean of Delta’s Applied Science, Business and Technology Division.
At Stagg High School in Stockton, for example, students can have dual enrollment at Delta College and the high school.
“We’re also starting a conversation with Manteca Unified School District about how we can incorporate some of the things they’re doing with what we’re doing,” she said. “We’re strategizing how we’re going to reach out to all of the schools.
“It takes time to build those relationships and go and talk to those students and talk about the programs we have and bring them to the farm. It’s more difficult in a virtual environment, but we’re looking at ways to do it.”
Drake has been busy reviewing some of the older blocks of crops on the 160-acre Manteca college farm. An almond variety trial that was removed shortly before he became farm manager last year will be planted to Nonpareil, Monterey and Carmel almond varieties.
“We’re finishing up the irrigation plan, and we expect to be planting in October,” he said. “I figured I didn’t want to wait – I’d rather get something planted with something that made sense. If students need ag experience, they’re more than likely going to need almond experience, and this will probably be the best block for it.”
He based that on almond’s standing as the No. 1 crop by value in the 2018 San Joaquin County Agriculture Commissioner’s crop report.
As part of a longer-term plan, Drake said he plans to pull some of the older, less-productive, blocks of permanent crops on the farm. What crops will be replanted is still being reviewed, although Pourzanjani has a few ideas.
“Right before going into the pandemic, we were seriously looking at the crops that can be grown and doing farm to table for our food service program,” he said. “I think that would allow the students to be able to see the entire supply chain involved with growing the crop – how does this cycle of the crop work when you’re trying to get food to the table.”
Still up in the air is this year’s annual Delta Agriculture and Natural Resources Department fundraiser, which traditionally has been held in November. With state coronavirus rules restricting the size of gatherings and in-door dining, the event may transition to a different format, Drake said.