By Vicky Boyd

A graduate of San Joaquin Delta Community College, Jennifer Terpstra has come full circle. After receiving an agriculture education degree from California State University, Chico, she spent six years at Lodi High School and 12 years at Escalon High School teaching ag education.

Nearly two years ago, Terpstra returned to Delta College as a full-time ag professor. One of her first tasks was to draft a vision for the community college's agriculture program. Included in the plan was filling two positions left vacant when instructors retired, enhancing and expanding current curriculum, and replacing an existing livestock barn that has seen better days.

Although the college advertised to fill the two positions this spring, the positions have now been frozen. Terpstra and another part-time staff professor, along with a handful of adjunct instructors, continue to try to meet the needs of the ag students.
"We're now at a crossroads,” she said. "Just a few short years ago, we had four full-time professors.”

Joe Valente, a Lodi-area vineyard manager and San Joaquin Farm Bureau board member, remembers when he attended the college in the late 1970s and it had 10 or so ag instructors.

"We were pretty lucky at the time because there were so many classes because there were so many professors,” said Valente, who graduated in 1980 with an associate's degree in plant science. "Probably about 10 years after that, the instructors started retiring and they didn't fill the positions over the years.”

Not only was he attracted to the wide variety of classes, but Valente said he also could save money by living at home and helping around the family farm. The class offerings also allowed him to complete his degree in only 1 1/2 years and take additional courses in ag business outside of his major field.

Nowadays, Valente said, students at Delta may have to spend 2 1/2 to three years to obtain all of the necessary classes for a two-year degree because fewer are offered each semester. Instead, many may choose to attend Modesto Junior College, he said, citing figures from the 2015 San Joaquin County crop report.

During that year, Delta College had 54 students in four ag programs, while MJC had 1,617 majoring in 25 different ag-related programs.
"It's just mind boggling,” Valente said. "It just seems there isn't a high priority to offer classes to kids locally through the JC. Here in San Joaquin County, ag is the No. 1 business, but the community college seems like it doesn't want to support it.”
David Strecker, a Delta graduate and SJFB first vice president, agreed.

"A top 10 ag-producing county in the nation should have a top 10 ag college in the nation,” he said.

As a fifth-generation farmer, Strecker said he knew after high school graduation he wanted to remain in agriculture – he just didn't know what he wanted to do.

"Delta College was the perfect stepping stone to help me figure it out,” said Strecker, who received an associate's degree in ag business. "I got my life organized on the college stage.”

Dani Ariaz, a Delta graduate who has taught ag education at Lathrop High School for 18 years, said she has seen interest in the field grow at her school in recent years. Following in the footsteps of her father, also a high school ag teacher before retiring, Ariaz said Delta fills a vital need.

"MJC is very, very big and a lot of the time when I send students there, they get lost in the shuffle,” she said. "Delta has a different feel and a different environment, so it makes it nice for the students to go there because they do get guidance from the teachers. The farm is a very positive environment, and it's good for them.”

The alternative would be for students to go directly into a four-year program, which is more expensive than completing the first two years at a local community college, she said. In addition, no college or university within a reasonable drive of San Joaquin County offers agriculture, so students incur additional room and board costs.

"Not all kids are meant to go straight out of high school and live on their own,” Ariaz said. "Having a community college allows them to grow up and get their bearings because college is completely different from high school.”

Ariaz and Strecker were two of several people who expressed their concerns about the state of Delta's ag program at the college's May 15 Board of Trustees meeting.

"It goes without saying that we recognize the value of ag in the community,” said Delta spokesman Alex Breitler, who also attended the meeting. "It's a huge part of the community and we want to be part of that. We want a solid and robust ag program.”

He said the difficulty is community college programs must pay for themselves, and Delta's relatively small ag enrollment poses challenges.

College leaders are currently developing a plan for the ag program's future. Until it is finalized, Breitler said it would be premature to hire faculty with certain area's of expertise without first knowing the program's ultimate focus.

Delta College's Manteca ag center
Delta's existing programs include an associate of science in horticulture along with several hort certificate programs, an AS in agriculture business, an AS in ag business that can be transferred to a CSU school and three different ag business certificate programs.

Terpstra said she hopes to have an AS degree program in animal science in 2019. An AS degree in plant science that can be transferred to a CSU school is slated for introduction in 2020. It also would provide a pathway to becoming a pest control adviser.
Most of Delta's ag courses are held at the Manteca Center located on the west side of the Highway 99 frontage road just south of Perry & Sons' packing facility and Delicato Winery.

A working farm comprising 150 acres of alfalfa, almonds, winegrapes and pasture, the center also has small plots of open ground where students can conduct projects.

On the main campus in Stockton is the related Caterpillar Dealer Service Program comprising a four-year state-approved apprenticeship and classes offered through the college's Heavy Equipment and Diesel Technology Department.

To meet state requirements, courses in the animal science program – for example – must include a laboratory component. This is where students gain hands-on experience and also where the barn and corral facilities at the Manteca Center come into play.

The barn is in dire need of replacement. Terpstra said she's inquired unsuccessfully about using some of the remaining funds from the $250 million Proposition L bond, which was passed in 2004, for a new building.

Surrounded by ag land and high schools with robust ag education programs, Terpstra said there is a growing need for a local community college dedicated to agriculture. In San Joaquin County alone, more than 4,000 students are enrolled in high school agricultural programs, she said, citing state education data.

On a recent tour of the Manteca Center, Terpstra rattled off several ideas she had about how the ag programs could better connect to the community. Students, for example, could start a community supported agriculture (CSA) produce subscription program. Not only would customers receive farm-fresh produce, but students would learn the business side of agriculture.

Food insecurity, or lack of food, is a big problem on college campuses too. Rather than just providing needy students with boxes of non-perishable goods, the farm campus could also supply them with fresh produce. But all of these programs hinge on having instructors and facilities, Terpstra said.

"There's a lot more we could do, but again, you have to have professors and you have to have a farm in place,” she said. "I'm not asking for the moon. I'm just asking for some basic necessities for our program to grow what's there and help promote Delta College ag in our community.”