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Historic animal farm at Pierce College under threat of closing

March 8, 2012 |  8:54 am

Pierce College farm

The historic animal farm at Pierce College in Woodland Hills is under threat of closing for good this year, another victim of brutal budget cuts to California’s once-revered, three-tiered higher education system.

An annual fundraiser scheduled next month could be the last hope for the working farm where 114 head of dairy cattle, 350 head of beef cattle (including a Brahma Bull named Clarence, the college's mascot), 250 sheep, 250 pigs and 6,000 poultry (whose eggs were sold at the school’s farm store) once roamed the hills of the west San Fernando Valley campus.

Now the inventory has dwindled to 20 cattle, 33 does and their kids, 33 chickens, seven sheep and a ram. There are also three donkeys and a potbellied pig.

The farm store is long gone, closed down years before the 114 head of dairy cattle were shipped to slaughter in 1990 because the district could no longer afford them.

The feed for the now-diminished farm costs in excess of $50,000 a year, which does not include veterinarian services, medicine and the repair of aging equipment, some of which is more than 40 years old, said Dr. Leland S. Shapiro, chairman of the agriculture department and director of the pre-veterinary science program at Pierce.

The farm, founded in 1947 when the campus opened as the Clarence W. Pierce School of Agriculture, is the cornerstone of a program that prepares students through rigorous coursework and hands-on training for transfer to graduate veterinary schools.

The death knell rang out this year when the college cut the farm’s supply budgets 25% while the price of feed rose more than 30%. There’s no thaw in sight for a freeze that prevents hiring any students and staff to help with the daily feeding, cleaning and maintenance required by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which regulates the animals' care.

Students currently volunteer to work on the farm, but there will be no students around this summer because summer school was cut to save money.

“What will happen is we will not have the labor or funds to feed our animals if help does not arrive, and because of the financial constraints of the district, we would then have no other option but to sell off a large number of our remaining small flocks and herds," Shapiro said in an interview this week.

"Will any animals remain? Most likely. Enough to properly educate the large numbers of students we have? No. Enough to still have a farm? No.”

The picture wasn't always so grim. The farm was once self-sufficient, when it had a working dairy, and the milk was sold to pay expenses. It also used to collect tens of thousands of dollars each year from movies and TV shows, such as “24,” “Toys” and “Little House on the Prairie,” that filmed on the farm. The college now uses the money it collects from filming for its general expense budget.

Although the farm’s closing would have little practical effect on students training to aid cats and dogs, it would severely affect those interested in working with farm animals. Without the hands-on training the program provides, students would have to get that preparation at more costly four-year universities before applying to graduate school to become veterinarians specializing in farm animals.

The Pierce program is among only a handful in the country that allows students to transfer directly to graduate veterinary schools of medicine.

Over the years, more than 50 acres of the Pierce College farm has been sold to outside entities and twice that amount as been developed by the college itself for non-agricultural purposes, Shapiro said.

“There is no other place you can go to get the feeling of a farm up close in the Los Angeles area,” Shapiro said. “People eat, people wear clothing and few realize or care where their food and fiber comes from. They just expect it to be there. Pierce is critical in educating the public on where their food and fiber comes from, in preparing students to transfer to a four-year institution and in stimulating the interest in our city folk in a field desperately needing new ‘young blood.’ ”

Shapiro, who started milking cows at the farm in 1971 and became a full-time professor in 1976, said he has no illusions that the financially crippled college district is going to pony up any more money or resources, but he is hoping the public will step in to help what has long been considered a crown jewel of the Los Angeles Community College District.

"What sets our college apart from all the others in the area is the hands-on experiences our students obtain on the farm," he said. "Putting a few animals in a corral does not provide this experience -- it then simply becomes a show and tell."

He said they are asking for donations in both labor and money to buy feed, veterinary supplies and equipment. The district is still paying for the salaries of 2 1/2 farm personnel, down from the 10 full-time employees and 1,000 hours of student labor the farm had when it was running at full-throttle.

Dr. Carol Kozeracki, dean of research, planning and enrollment management at Pierce College, did not return phone calls or emails seeking comment.

Most outside financial support comes through its Adopt a Cow program, which helps purchase seeds for its pastures and feed for hay when the pastures aren’t enough, and the annual Spring Farm Walk to be held on campus April 22.

Donations to the farm can also be made at the Pierce College Foundation website. After putting in payment information, in the box asking for additional instructions, designate Friends of the Pierce College Farm.

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-- Amanda Covarrubias

Photo: A father and son view cows at the Pierce College farm in the late '90s when developers wanted to lease 240 acres for a golf course. Credit: Frank Wiese / Special to The Times

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