“But here’s the truth: We need to have people discover agriculture before we can teach them. Once people discover agriculture it’s a remarkable thing … interest goes way up. We need to increase opportunities for people to take part and to experience agriculture as something other than what the media has portrayed.”
– Valerie “Val” Mellano, Cal Poly Pomona
Valerie “Val” Mellano is the chair of the Plant Science Department and interim chair of the Agribusiness & Food Industry Management/Agricultural Science Department at Cal Poly Pomona. Previously she served as an academic with the University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources, working as the county director and an environmental issues advisor at UC Cooperative Extension in San Diego County. Mellano holds a Ph.D. in plant pathology from UC Riverside, as well as a M.S. in plant pathology and a B.S. in animal science from Montana State University. Val and her husband, Mike Mellano, are actively involved in farming. (Mike manages a large cut flower growing operation and is the chair of the California Cut Flower Commission).
The combined number of students in Mellano’s departments at Cal Poly Pomona is about 400, a number that has nearly doubled in the last eight to 10 years. Cal Poly’s Plant Science Department offers a major in plant science, with minors in ornamental horticulture, agronomy, soil science, pest management and irrigation science. The college will be adding a minor in urban agriculture in the very near future.
Q: Tell us about your work at Cal Poly Pomona, an institution that is a little less well-known than Cal Poly’s other campus in San Luis Obispo.
Mellano: We look at it another way. Cal Poly Pomona is actually larger than Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. This year we have nearly 24,000 students. We have things in our college that SLO doesn’t offer. We have a very diverse population. About 36 percent of the students enrolled in our college of agriculture are Latino. In the Plant Science Department, it’s an even higher percentage.
Q: You previously worked for UC as a Cooperative Extension advisor. You had an incredibly successful career there. Why did you choose to go back to a campus to teach?
Mellano: At UC Cooperative Extension, I worked primarily with growers on issues that were difficult for them, including water and land use. I built a good program. However, at some point in my career I knew I wanted to get on a campus just because I feel very strongly that we need to engage the next generation of agriculturalists. There is so much opportunity in agriculture now. The time is right.
The way this worked out is funny. I came to the campus to deliver a workshop for the Los Angeles Irrigated Lands Group, which was meeting at Cal Poly Pomona. When I finished, I sat down with the faculty at Cal Poly and they mentioned the chair position was open and asked if I would be interested. The application was in my email by the time I returned to my office. I didn’t intend to leave UC, but I went up to the Cal Poly Pomona campus and looked around. It’s really awesome. I found facilities, land, greenhouses and more. And I thought, “This could be pretty great.
It’s been a rewarding job and I feel like I’m accomplishing something very important. I cannot say enough good things about the students. They are hard-working, tough and resourceful. The faculty and staff work incredibly long hours and create a really good team.
Q: Cal Poly Pomona is in the Los Angeles basin, where interest in urban ag is growing quickly. How is the Plant Sciences Department engaging with urban agriculture?
Mellano: A few years ago, our budget was quite tight. We hadn’t been able to refill positions created by retirements. When the budget opened up and we were able to start hiring, we talked about urban agriculture. We decided we needed to – without excluding traditional agriculture – broaden our base. Urban agriculture isn’t just about growing things — it’s also about community development, education and many other things. We also recognized that we had an unmatched opportunity to be a leader in urban agriculture because we’re basically in East Los Angeles, have a diverse population … and all these things going on in Los Angeles lend themselves to urban agriculture.
We decided we would add an urban agriculture faculty member to start developing programs in this area. We were given a spot to fill. We had an excellent pool of candidates. It was hard to choose among so many qualified candidates, so I sat down with our provost and said I wanted to hire our top two candidates. And we hired two new faculty, Dr. Eileen Cullen, who was a faculty member at University of Wisconsin, and Dr. Aaron Fox, who was completing a postdoctoral appointment at Michigan State University. They have been absolutely stellar.
We will be adding a minor in urban agriculture soon, so a student could major in plant science or agriculture business and have a minor in urban ag. The program covers everything from on-farm production to community policy development work. There are now eighteen classes. One class is called “Farmers Market Survey.” Students learn what it takes to manage a farmers market. Our two faculty members are working and interfacing with community groups, and creating service-learning classes, which are quite popular here.
We’re also trying to reach out to other departments and colleges and have a number of environmental biology and landscape architecture students taking coursework or completing minors in the Plant Science Department.
We’re growing. A few years ago we had about 90 plant science students; now we have 150. The Agribusiness/Ag Science Department had about 100 students; now they have about 250 enrolled in classes. Until a year ago, we were going to combine all three programs into one department but that’s changed. We have grown significantly and each department will maintain its own identity.
Q: Tell us a bit more about your students and how your program works.
Mellano: We want to provide the skills and training that the next generation of agriculturalists needs. While some students come into our program as first year students, most come in as transfer students from community colleges. About 80 percent of the plant science students attend community colleges before coming to our program. Many transfer into the program from other majors. The interesting thing is that one of our general education courses that can be taken by students in any major called “Agriculture in the Modern World” excites them, and many students will change their majors to agriculture.
The students we work with have a desire to grow things, be nurturing and to feed the world. That is wonderful and a great set of aspirations that we support. But we also want students to learn that being in agriculture involves much more. We offer an agriculture leadership class; students are required to apply and go through an interview process to participate in the class. We try to impress upon our students the variety of challenges they will face as an agriculturalists. Students learn about marketing, management and all those unending challenges that are faced by people with careers in agriculture. A very broad set of skills is required.
Cal Poly has traditionally been a very production-oriented and Big Ag-focused program. That’s expanded a bit. We teach the Imperial Valley style ag and field and row crops and commercial tree crop production, but we also now teach students about urban agriculture and production that fits the Southern California cropping systems in the coastal areas. We need to be the leaders because we’re the ones who are going to help equip the young people who are going to be the change makers. As educators and as a nation, we need to encourage young people to get into agriculture.
Q: There’s a movement afoot to get the federal government to regard farming as public service. What do you think about this idea?
Mellano: I read about this the other day. I think that it is a really interesting idea. I hadn’t thought about it before, but we have such a small percentage of people in agriculture and their children may not study agriculture in college. People in agriculture today are largely not from farming backgrounds. About 90 percent of the students in our program are not from families working in agriculture. Maybe its time we provide this type of incentive to encourage agricultural careers.
Q: What about Cal Poly’s role in educating the larger community about agriculture?
Mellano: We’re trying to make Cal Poly more of a center for agriculture in the Los Angeles Basin. We kept talking about how we’re going to teach people about agriculture.
But here’s the truth: we need to have people discover agriculture before we can teach them. Once people discover agriculture it’s a remarkable thing … interest goes way up. We need to increase opportunities for people to take part and to experience agriculture as something other than what the media has portrayed. We start with kids … little and middle school kids are so interested. We have school groups participate on our campus from a very early age. We are continuously challenging stereotypes of the bib overall wearing farmers and trying to replace that image with a more education-oriented image of agriculture.
We recently held our annual Pumpkin Festival. Last year more than 80,000 people visited our pumpkin patch. We are still doing our accounting for the 2015 festival, so I don’t have final attendance numbers. We grow the pumpkins at Chino Prison, where we have access to 800-900 acres of land to grow animal feed and grain, as well as our pumpkins. We bring the pumpkins back to campus and have our event at the Agriscapes facility. Every pumpkin costs $5. We grow 100,000+ pumpkins and sell as many of them as we can. Each student club from the College of Agriculture hosts a booth with some type of an agricultural theme. An example would be the nutrition club, which makes pumpkin bread as a fundraiser.
School groups come through our pumpkin patch each year before and after the big festival weekend. We’ve had 6,000 students the week before the festival, and about the same number the week after. We have animals available to help educate the kids who come to Agriscapes, and have recently hired a coordinator for Agriscapes because activity is stepping up.
We’re very excited, because we’re going to be partnering with UCCE to start a 4-H club at Cal Poly. We’re excited, because our agriculture students are interested in becoming the 4-H leaders. This is a great partnership between UC and Cal Poly.
Q: You’re an agriculture educator, researcher and you’re also a producer. What kinds of national policies do you think we need in regards to agriculture education?
Mellano: From a student point of view, I’d say we need to offer incentives for students to go into agriculture careers. Counting agricultural work as public service is probably an excellent idea. I have kids who are looking at methods of paying their student loans back and agriculture should definitely be in there. Industry has been receptive to helping.
We also need to create more opportunities for students to get out and see things. Some of my students have never been out of Southern California and may never leave the area. They need to get out and see what the rest of the world is doing. More international agriculture programs for students would be great. The students from our program who have participated in international internships have gotten so much out of them. Cost is a big factor for our students. To work, visit or spend a summer in a foreign country is probably out of reach for many of them. Exchanges with other campuses even in the state and around the nation would be terrific just to broaden the students’ perspectives.
All these things are possible, but they don’t always happen. We need to make those things realistic for students who are on tight budgets. We also need to provide more opportunities for people who aren’t traditional students to learn and receive agricultural education, whether through certificate programs or community-based programs and meetings. Perhaps that’s simply more funding for the structure that’s currently in place: extension and colleges/universities.
Q: It’s been a tough time for higher education in general. What are the biggest challenges you see?
Mellano: One of the biggest things I see is that most colleges of agriculture are not well understood or regarded by their own administration. They have to beg for their own existence … and advocate for support from the ag industry.
As with other universities, we face our share of needing to compete for resources with other colleges and departments at Cal Poly. However, we have a new president who is very much behind us, and our new dean, Mary Holz-Clause is also wonderful. She’s a real fighter with a strong agricultural background who is helping us to raise our visibility.
I think, in general, agriculture has a tendency to hide and not raise any issues. Agriculture is too important to the country and the world to be invisible. Agriculture as a discipline has perhaps been a bit slower to forge more interdisciplinary bonds with other academic fields, although that is changing.
I’d also say education about agriculture for K-12 is absolutely vital. We should probably reframe “STEM” to “STEAM” training: science, technology, engineering, agriculture and mathematics. Our students have wonderful ideas about how this could be done.