Students Keep Campus Farm Active While Classes Operate Virtually

Like other essential agricultural operations across the Central Valley, the Fresno State University Agricultural Laboratory has kept up a near-normal pace over the past month, thanks to its workforce that relies partially on students who are dedicated to gaining hands-on, career experience.

The 1,000-acre campus farm surrounds the Fresno State campus to the north, west and east edges and mirrors the diversity of the surrounding counties that lead nation in agricultural production.

The Jordan College of Agricultural Sciences and Technology’s 2,300 students rely on the farm as a valuable learning resource for classes, as do campus researchers, industry partners and other area schools that learn where their food comes from through student, staff and faculty presentations.

Public tours have stopped, but livestock student workers and managers still provide daily care for the beef and dairy cattle, quarter horse, sheep and swine units.

Campus fruit and nut orchards, row vegetable crops and vineyards also need continual management and occasional irrigation to keep production schedules on track to provide produce for customers at the Gibson Farm Market on campus.

Campus winery, creamery and meat processing facilities are also still providing fresh products and are among the 22 enterprises coordinated by Mark Salwasser.

The campus farm manager is a 1988 Fresno State plant science graduate and has also managed row crop, orchard and vineyard units in his 29 years working on the farm.

He recently gave an update on farm operations, campus sweet corn and other potential changes.

FresnoStateNews.com: How has the COVID-19 situation and campus access restrictions affected the campus farm?

Mark Salwasser: We’re still in business, moving forward and keeping up with social distancing. We feel that agriculture is an essential element of our society, and grocery stores need to stay open to some extent. We are going to keep growing food and raising animals, and that’s why we’re still here working as much as possible.

FSN: How important is it to keep the farm operating from a production standpoint?

Salwasser: Shutting it down would be a drastic measure, especially for some units like the dairy. Moving cows out, and then later trying to start back up would be a challenge. Also, the orchards are a year-round, long-term investment that need to be managed regularly to keep them healthy and productive. We’re trying to keep business as usual as much as possible.

FSN: How have the social distancing measures come into play among the farm staff?

Salwasser: We’re keeping our workers separated as much as possible. In the ag operations office, we normally have five people, but only two are there right now including myself. The others who work with our budget and administrative needs are working from home.

FSN: Have any of your units created online resources for class labs?

Salwasser: Our horticulture nursery is a big resource for plant science labs this time of year, and I think seven classes were using it this semester. We’ve retooled it a little so student workers are doing the transplants that classes would have done and are sold at the farm market. We’re also creating some online teaching resources for the students to use for their classes via photos and Zoom, and collecting data for them for their assignments and projects.

FSN: How does the summer sweet corn season look so far?

Salwasser: We have had sweet corn planned out well in advance since seeds need to get planted early to meet our goal to have corn at the farm market by the end of May or early June. We’ve already had eight plantings, and that continued in between rainy weather and wet soil, and will continue on in stages to keep an ample supply throughout the summer. We expect to have the same supply of sweet corn as in the past, about 70 acres, and we’re excited to kick off the 2020 corn season. We’re happy with the planting so far.

FSN: How has the winter weather affected operations in recent months?

Salwasser: The winter has been atypical. It’s unusual to have such dry soil in February and early March, so we’ve had to irrigate crops like corn, wheat, alfalfa, almonds and other early blooming trees and the vineyard. After the moisture in late March and April, hopefully we have enough snow to get some surface water when we need it in the later spring and summer. A few weeks ago we were struggling with dry soil and planting sweet corn and pre-irrigating, and then we had the fields that were too wet to get into for several days.

FSN: Any new things to look for at the Gibson Farm Market?

Salwasser: We’re growing strawberries for the first time in several years. We were trying to give customers another product in the early spring time to go with the asparagus. They’re selling really well, and we’re just getting into the production levels since the rain has slowed their growth in recent weeks.

FSN: Any other things to look for on the campus farm this month?

Salwasser: The winery is doing a special $5 shipping sale in April for orders of three packs or more shipped around the state. They’re also planning on canning our Tailgate wines for the first time in 375-milliliter single cans — a little over 12 ounces — and four-packs that will be fan-friendly for the football games. They’ll also tentatively continue their bottling dates if they can.

FSN: What about any changes in the summer and fall?

Salwasser: We’re transitioning our full olive orchard into organic status, and we’re in the final stage of the three-year phase, which will be completed in August. We grow three varieties — Koroniki, Arbosana and Arbequina — and those olives lend themselves to being organic because they don’t have a lot of insect issues, and the returns are significant for organic olive oil. We also wanted some more organic ground on the farm.

FSN: For those who drive by the farm near Sierra Avenue, what’s the new orchard out there and how does that play into the farm’s long-range plans and needs?

Salwasser: To help our long-term economic sustainability, we just planted 36 acres of new almonds to replace a section of alfalfa. We may add another 35 acres of almonds and 36 acres of pistachios in the winter of 2020-21, but we’ll need some industry support. We pulled out 35 acres of almonds that needed to be retired about one and a half years ago, and that’s where the new almond block would go in next year. The new pistachio block, which could be used for research that is in high demand, would go just east of the current block in a section of alfalfa. Beyond that, a third phase would be to retire another 27-acre block of older almonds in two to five years.

FSN: Is the Gibson Farm Market still open normal hours?

Salwasser: Yes, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Certain areas are selling well like our meats section, so our meats lab has picked up production. The creamery is also continuing to focus on making ice cream and cheese. We’re trying to keep it open for our community, for our neighbors and friends to help provide key food products for students and area families.

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