Delta College ag program showcases improvements

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By Vicky Boyd

San Joaquin Delta College continues to shore up its agricultural programs with new dairy and poultry science degrees and a pathway to pest control advisor certificate in the works and a paid internship program.

San Joaquin Farm Bureau First Vice President Ken Vogel said Farm Bureau has advocated for improvements like those and continues to meet regularly with Delta College leaders.

“I think the ag program is very worthwhile and also very necessary for this area,” said Vogel, who also sits on the San Joaquin County Board of Education. “We have a lot of businesses that depend on ag, and the students at Delta know how ag works. Farm Bureau has really campaigned for Delta to get them to build up their ag programs and get people elected to the board of trustees who agree.”

The ag college’s newest two faculty, hired last year, hit the ground running and have brought renewed energy to the animal science and plant science programs, said Delta College Chancellor Omid Pourzanjani.

A visible improvement is the 13,125-square-foot steel blue barn finished last year on its Manteca farm campus off Highway 99 in Lathrop. At three times the size, it replaces the old red barn, which has since been razed.

A large sign with Delta College’s triangle logo, designed to catch the eyes of passersby, is scheduled to be installed on the barn shortly, Pourzanjani said.

Animal pens just south of the barn are filled with small ruminants – goats and sheep – which are used as part of animal science labs.

“That’s what this facility is really designed for,” said farm manager Donald Drake, himself a Delta College alum. “Then we can start working up to do cattle, poultry and pigs.”

During a recent tour, Drake discussed some of the cropping changes he’s made since becoming manager about a year ago. An old 32.5-acre almond varietal trial, for example, was pulled, chipped and underwent whole-orchard recycling. In its place is a new orchard comprising Nonpareil, Carmel and Monterey varieties. Plans for some other parts of the 154-acre farm are still in the works.

“It’s really trying to get the faculty’s feet wet – they’ve only been here a year,” Drake said. “We’re trying to get them comfortable with Delta, get their classes and things going while building a program – that just takes time.

“Then throw a pandemic into the middle of that. Let’s put it this way – it was just an interesting year.”

Travis Cardoso, a plant science professor hired last year, agreed. “It’s not going to change overnight, but we’re in it for the long run.”

The classroom building just north of the barn received a fresh coat of paint inside and out, and an area formerly used for student laboratory work was upgraded to an actual laboratory facility. And installation of a nitrate well treatment system and broadband internet at the farm campus are slated for completion before the fall semester.

“So there’s a lot of work being done,” Pourzanjani said. “I wish it was happening a lot faster, but it has to play out its time. What I hope it shows is the commitment to the programs as well as the growth of the programs.”

He said the Delta College district hoped to place a multi-million-dollar bond measure on the November 2022 ballot to fund improvements, including expansion of the Mountain House campus. Also included would be construction of a general education building on the Manteca farm, which would allow students to remain on site to take general education courses without commuting to the main Stockton campus.

The building also could be used for early college programs where students complete up to two years of college credits while simultaneously fulfilling high school studies.

Effects of the pandemic

What the relaxation of COVID rules means to fall enrollment is yet unknown, said Danell Hepworth, ag college dean. Some students who took jobs for financial reasons during the pandemic may not return, and remote learning may have turned some others off to higher education altogether.

Currently, the ag programs have about 500 students.

The Delta College District fared better than many other state junior colleges with student enrollment during the pandemic, seeing only a 2.2% decline from fall 2019 to fall 2020, according to EdSource. That compares to a 21.5% drop within the Yosemite Community College District and a 25.3% drop within the Merced Community College District.

Within the ag college itself, enrollment was actually up, Hepworth said. She attributed part of that to hiring Cardoso to head plant sciences and horticulture and his wife, Jessi Cardoso, to head animal science.

New programs in the works

Jessi Cardoso, who is developing the dairy science and poultry science curricula, said she believed the college needed them because those industries are important to the county. In fact, dairy and eggs/chickens are among the county’s top five ag crops, according to the San Joaquin County Agriculture Commissioner’s 2019 crop report.

Helped by a local advisory committee, including two PCAs, Travis Cardoso is putting the finishing touches on the pathway to PCA certificate program. Under the plant sciences department, the program would guide students to a career as a PCA after college. It is expected to be approved by the California Department of Pesticide Regulation before classes begin in 2022.

“We have some industry partners who are looking to hire from our students, so they can take classes and work in the field,” Travis Cardoso said. “They can be in and out in two years. It will be something that isn’t offered anywhere else in the area, and we can backfill in a much-needed workforce.”

If the Cardosos complete their curricula before October, the new dairy science, poultry science and PCA programs would likely be offered the 2022 fall semester, Pourzanjani said.

He said he views one of Delta College’s missions as providing students with workforce skills so they can obtain good-paying jobs. Since Pourzanjani has joined college, several employers have told him about the lack of local skilled labor.

To that end, the collage recently launched the 1,000 Internships Initiative with $2 million. The San Joaquin Board of Supervisors felt so strongly about the effort that they provided an additional $2 million in matching funds. The paid internship program isn’t limited to agriculture but any Delta CTE, or career technical education, program.

“We pay the students,” Pourzanjani said. “We provide the insurance. All the employers have to do is give the students the work experience.”

SJFB also has advocated for internship programs, Vogel said.

“It’s a very valuable program, and Farm Bureau has been very much in favor of it.”