Pictured: Keith Barnard, (middle) of Mission Produce, speaks with agriculture students in the new avocado orchard at Ventura College. Photo submitted. 

by Kimberly Rivers

Ventura College recently planted a one-acre commercial orchard of new avocado trees on campus as part of efforts to build the school’s agriculture program, which was restarted in 2017.

Dorothy Farias, program director and instructor, said that the school once had a diverse program going back to the 1950s. Over time, “aims changed, it got more and more condensed. In the ’80s it was [focused] on landscaping and nursery type courses,” she explained. About 20 years ago, a few key faculty members retired and were not replaced, and the program ended.

“The [local agriculture] industry always wanted the program, and they are concerned there are not higher education opportunities [in agriculture] in the area. It is a large sector in the county and a major economic driver,” said Farias. Local companies want “to be able to find skilled employees.” She said the new chancellor of the Ventura County Community College District, Dr. Greg Gillespie, “is an agronomist by training,” and understands the opportunity available.

Farias herself has a lifelong history in agriculture. She was “born and raised” in the dairy industry in Chino. Her parents were immigrants, and her father worked in the dairies, “hoping one day to own one, but that didn’t happen. Initially I wanted to be a dairy vet.” Then the market changed and the dairy industry went through a downsizing. She focused on animal science, and minored in marketing and agricultural business. She also has experience in the floral industry. Eventually realizing that her interest was in education, Farias began teaching at an agriculture vocational high school in Massachusetts. She returned to California for her graduate work. (The cold of the East Coast had a lot to do with the decision.)

Farias has been with Ventura College for about a year, coming from the Agricultural Business program at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, where she was involved in growing that program. “Students are always my favorite part of teaching,” she said, noting that she was drawn to Ventura by “the opportunity to grow the program . . . that reflects what the area needs, what the students are interested in,” and that can help build “lucrative careers for them.”

“Right now we have one official Associate of Science degree,” said Farias. The fully accredited program includes two certificate programs in agriculture business and plant science. Those are the “two main focus areas in curriculum” right now and the college has plans for a veterinary tech program coming soon. Farias said that it’s important for the program to serve the two main types of students the program has. One is the “traditional, out-of-high-school students,” who are likely to transfer after two years to a university or finish with a two-year Associates degree. The program also gets students who are “currently employed in agriculture in the region” who are taking classes to “increase skills and capacity; our program is the only one in the county right now.”

Currently the program is fairly small, with about 20 students. “We would like to see at least double-digit growth. It would be great to see it doubling [next year]. We have a lot of work, marketing and promoting the return of the program.”

“There are strong and robust high school agriculture programs in the area,” she continued. Local high school students can get great exposure to the more familiar aspects of the industry, “the farming and production, but there is more than that . . . the business side, so many careers are tied into that, and that is what I want to expose these students to.”

The avocado orchard helps do just that.

Farias said the orchard creates a “real-world, hands-on” learning experience. Keith Barnard, vice president of Global Sourcing with Mission Produce, is co-chair of the agriculture program advisory board and is on the College Foundation Board of Directors. She said Barnard was able to “marshall the generous in-kind donations to reinvigorate” the orchard space. Old trees had to be removed, the soil prepared and irrigation systems updated. Due to the small size of the current program, the college couldn’t “justify” spending money on the orchard, so the donation of time and supplies was vital. Several local agriculture companies contributed to the project, including Mission Produce, Halter-Encinas Enterprises, Coast Water Solutions, Brokaw Nursery and Quality Ag.

“It is a commercial orchard, top of the line, no expenses spared,” said Farias. Even though it is a small space, it allows students to see and use what they are learning in the classroom in a real-world project. They will be involved in growing and cultivating the orchard for optimum yields, and also participate in the business side: accounting, cost projection, revenue, marketing, soil and plant science.

“The trees belong to Mission, they will come in and harvest it, pack it, and we will receive a portion of revenue,” said Farias. She said that this is just the “pilot” project; there are plans for similar projects and to partner with more local businesses for other growing operations, such as hoop houses and substrate programs, so that “students have a variety of exposure to different settings commonly found in the region.”

When asked about Integrated Pest Management and sustainability, which are listed as parts of the program, Farias said, “The orchard is brand new . . . we are hoping to use the least amount of inputs. . . . The land is not certified organic, but we can use organic [processes] and are probably going to go that way. It will depend on the growing needs and conditions. Sustainability means what is best economically and environmentally.”

A ribbon cutting for the orchard is being planned for December. For more information about the Agriculture Program at Ventura College visit: https://www.venturacollege.edu/departments/academic/agriculture