By Dana Bartholomew, Staff Writer | LA Daily News
^^PIERCE COLLEGE FARM--Field Manager Jeff Bloom oversees harvesting crops at the Pierce College farm. Since 2005 the farm has become a local favorite with it's fall harvest, corn maze and fresh vegetables. (Photo by David Crane/Staff)
<< PIERCE COLLEGE FARM--Corn is planted for the corn maze, a very popular attraction at the farm. Since 2005 the farm has become a local favorite with it's fall harvest, corn maze and fresh vegetables. (Photo by David Crane/Staff)
19 May 2009 -- A Pierce College foundation just spent $250,000 on farm equipment to grow a bumper crop of corn and tomatoes on campus, with plans to till the fields for the next quarter century.
But The Valley Fair could upend the farm's food cart, with its own plans for the campus farmland.
Both the Foundation for Pierce College and the state 51st District Agricultural Association plan to vie for a 25-year "agri-tainment" lease that will determine the farming future of the Valley's first agricultural college.
"We will be looking for agencies who are willing to care for the land - make it productive, make it green, make something out of it," said Larry Kraus, associate vice president of administrative services for Pierce College. "It's for running the farm market, growing produce, vegetables and for creating agri-tainment."
The Community College District board, which will award the lease, seeks 2 percent of the proceeds from veggie sales and events in addition to undetermined rents.
The deadline for proposals is Aug. 21, with a winner expected to be chosen by the end of the year. Both agencies are now readying bids.
On one side is the foundation, established four years ago to support Pierce College through the sale of crops, Christmas trees and its annual Halloween Harvest Festival at its Farm Center at Victory Boulevard and De Soto Avenue.
On the other side is The Valley Fair, established by the state 62 years ago to promote local agriculture through its annual June event. But the fair was canceled this year for lack of funds and appropriate facilities. Ever since it lost its fairgrounds to Cal State Northridge in 1961, the peripatetic fair has sought a stable home.
Both agencies say they intend to grow row crops at the site to teach the public about sustainable farm practices. Both intend to stage a harvest festival and other events that reflect the Valley's receding agricultural heritage.
And both say they want to work closely with Pierce College to offer jobs, instruction and support to students.
"It's very exciting what's happening there," said Margo Murman, board secretary of the Foundation for Pierce College, from her home in Oregon. "I think the Farm Center is wonderful - exactly what the community has wanted all these years."
But while the foundation has four years of experience in running the current farm stand, festivals, kiddie activities and a farmer's market - including a major investment in infrastructure - the Valley Fair intends to offer its signature event, year-round vegetables and a renewed focus on equestrian activities.
"Pierce College was an agricultural farm. We'd like to maintain it as an agricultural base. From what we're trying to do, we think it's a good match," said David Honda, president of The Valley Fair association. "We don't have another prospect. We've been looking for years."
The fair, originally held in Northridge, spent several years at the Los Angeles Equestrian Center before neighbors complained of noise.
It moved in 1998 and has been held at Castaic Lake, the Hansen Dam Recreation Area and Saugus Speedway in Santa Clarita. While officials said Hansen Dam failed to draw enough people to sustain the fair, Saugus was popular, but it was outside the fair association's jurisdiction.
There was also too little time at the speedway to set up and break down the fair, officials said. So with the state withholding its annual distribution of $180,000 this year because of the economy, fair officials decided to sit out 2009 in order to search for a permanent home in the Valley.
The Valley Fair board, appointed by the governor, includes William Lander, manager of the Equestrian Education Center at Pierce College.
"Our core mission is to educate our constituents on agriculture and livestock," Honda said. "Most of the kids here in the metro area, you asked them where grapes and apples come from, and they say `Vons."'
Equestrian advocates called Pierce College the right choice for The Valley Fair farm.
"We think it would be great," said Mary Kaufman, president of Equestrian Trails Inc. Corral 54, an equestrian advocacy group in Chatsworth. "Their mission is education in agriculture and such. It would be wonderful to have them go in there."
Kaufman said it would also benefit the horse community to have equestrian events again at Pierce College, something she said has been denied horse owners for the past few years.
The Foundation for Pierce College, with its well-established connections to the campus, believes it has a head start in the bidding battle.
Four years ago, Dennis Washburn - a former mayor and co-founder of the city of Calabasas - hired on as the foundation's director with a grand plan to create a $10 million model farm and education center. His service with the foundation will end this year after the college district eliminated his position.
College administrators had hoped to earn the same proceeds from the farm as a controversial and moribund golf course proposal of the 1990s - while preserving college land from development.
Plans called for row crops, a farmer's market, equestrian center and a Pierce College vineyard and winery - with the college's very own label - expected to rake in $800,000 a year for the campus.
Since then, they've built a Farm Center and pioneer village that hosts a harvest festival, corn maze and holiday tree sales that grosses $1.25 million a year.
But while foundation officials say they've contributed $1.7 million in college benefits - including Farm Center infrastructure and farm equipment - they decline to spell out how much money has been given to Pierce College student support.
"This is a class act," said Washburn, surveying the farm last week with Robert McBroom, the Farm Center director. "You've got to invest money to make money. With Rob's genius, he has envisioned not just a Harvest Festival and haunted house - which is the real moneymaker - he will make the Pierce College farm a long-term and viable success."
When the foundation's contract farmer abruptly pulled up stakes in February, McBroom, a former 4-H whiz-kid from Granada Hills, took on the farm operation itself.
He bought $250,000 in farm equipment, including a reusable drip irrigation system. He hired six farmhands, many of them students; hired soil experts; adjusted fertilizers to suit each section of corn, squash, tomato, eggplant, bell pepper and pumpkin crops; and reduced water use by 20 percent.
He also eliminated pesticides by introducing good bugs to go after bad ones.
The result of the agricultural tuneup: this year's crop yield shot up 500 percent - enough to donate 2,000 pounds of produce last week to a local food pantry.
"Through good luck, farming practices, we've had a much greater yield than we've ever had before," said McBroom, 41, as he picked up a zucchini bigger than his arm. "These come from our fields.
"Here, we can tell you how this is grown. It's the best zucchini I've ever seen, and the best tasting."
Out in the fields, corn sweet enough to eat raw hung on stalks as fresh-picked tomatoes were boxed for immediate sale.
Jeff Bloom, a Woodland Hills native with a degree in farming from the University of Hawaii, said the key is boots among the rows.
"A lot of it's all about has to do with good love," said Bloom, 28, project manager for the farm. "We've been doing all pesticides and herbicides free, which means we must walk through the fields more.
"As the old adage goes, `The best fertilizer is a farmer's footsteps."'