By Vicky Boyd

An impassioned agricultural community gave San Joaquin Delta College leaders an earful during a recent public meeting in Stockton about the need to rebuild the ag program and return it to its former stature.

“You make a statement that we can’t be Santa Rosa (Community College),” said San Joaquin Farm Bureau Executive Director Bruce Blodgett. “You just need to have a better vision than Santa Rosa.”

With about 20 full-time instructors, Santa Rosa’s ag program has been touted as an example of what Delta College should aspire to. Blodgett pointed out that San Joaquin County not only has more winegrape acreage than Sonoma and Napa counties combined but also has hundreds of thousands of acres more of walnuts, almonds and other crops.

“Why the neglect?” he asked. “Why the years and years of lack of investment in the ag program? Invest in the ag program. Invest in ag teachers. If you don’t invest in the ag program, you won’t have the students.”

SJFB First Vice President David Strecker, and a Delta College graduate, agreed, adding that San Joaquin County is one of the nation’s Top 10 agricultural counties. As such, it should have an equally prominent community college ag program.

“It’s simple – hire the individuals to teach the classes,” said Strecker, who also serves on the college’s ag advisory board.  Delta College President/Superintendent Kathy Hart reassured the audience that they had no intention of eliminating the ag program. But she was still peppered with questions about two teaching positions in limbo and construction of a new barn at the college’s school farm to replace the one that has seen better days.

At one time, Delta College’s ag program had seven full-time professors. As they retired, the positions were never filled. Currently, the program has 1.5 full-time-equivalent professors. A number of courses also are taught by adjunct, or part-time, instructors.

Ed Fictner, a retired Manteca High School ag teacher, said the county’s high schools have robust agricultural programs led by 39 teachers. More than 4,500 students will graduate from those programs, and many will attend community college. 

Other students not enrolled in high school ag classes also will enroll in college ag programs, so there’s a definite need on the local level, Fictner said.

Salvador Vargas, interim assistant superintendent and vice president of instruction and planning, pointed out that one criteria the state now uses to rank a community college program is the number of graduates who quickly are hired in their field.

Assistant Agriculture Commissioner Kamal Bagri was one of many who provided examples of the job opportunities within ag. She said her office typically hires 35 part-time trappers during the summer, most of whom are Delta College students. To qualify, they must have 30 hours of ag science or biology. This year, they were only able to recruit 27.

“For the last two years, we’ve had a very, very hard time recruiting,” Bagri said.

The goal is for those students to transfer to a four-year college and return to San Joaquin County’s workforce once they’re finished. Potential employees who grew up in the Bay Area or elsewhere may not understand the county’s agricultural diversity, she said.

“It’s important that on our staff we have local people because they’re the ones who are going to work with the farmers,” Bagri said.

Nancy Franzia, who with husband Don owns Big Valley Tractor, said they have a constant need for trained ag mechanics. Although Delta College is home to a Caterpillar service technician program, she said it is specialized and isn’t applicable to their needs. “There are multiple tractor dealers in this area, and we need the mechanics,” she said. “We need the wrench and computer diagnostics. Now you have monitors on those tractors that report back what’s going on – they need to be computer literate, mechanical literate. We need management. We need service directors. We need sales directors.”

Eddie Lucchesi, manager of the San Joaquin County Mosquito & Vector Control District, is a Delta grade himself. But he said he was saddened about the decline of the ag program since he attended.

“I can’t tell you how many of my son’s friends went to MJC (Modesto Junior College) because there was nothing offered here,” Lucchesi said. “If you don’t have a hands-on approach, you won’t have the opportunity for people to go into the workforce right after with AA degrees or transfer to a four-year institution.”

Lucchesi said he’d like the program’s focus to return to what it was in the 1970s, when it offered courses in engine overhauling, shop skills and welding, among other subjects.

He cited employers, such as irrigation districts, mosquito control districts and the Natural Resources Conservation Service, that seek workers with plant science, soil science and mechanical backgrounds.

Many speakers also pressed Hart about the two teaching positions that were advertised this spring and then put on hold a few months later. One was for ag business, the other for plant science/horticulture. 

“If you don’t have the courses for those students to take this year, they’re going to Modesto or down south,” said Pamela Sweeten, an almond broker. “Then you can say, ‘We don’t have the enrollment here, so we can get rid of the program.’ If you want the students, then show us by hiring the individuals to teach the courses, because we have a waiting list.”

Hart said she was waiting to see what direction the ag program would take so they could hire the right people to fit the course load.

After hearing comments, she said it appeared audience members wanted ag business and plant science professors. Hart said she would go back through the applicants to see if there was an adequate pool from which to choose and would move forward with hiring. With the fall semester beginning in late August, she said it is too late to fill the positions by the start of the school year. But the new hires could possibly be in place by the start of the 2019 spring semester. In the interim, adjunct instructors would teach the classes, Hart said.

The school has $5 million from the 2004 Proposition L bond set aside to build a new barn. After hearing from the audience, Hart said she also would move forward with those plans.

Strecker said he was cautiously optimistic after hearing Hart’s comments.

“Actions speak louder than words,” he said. “The important part is what do they do from now on. Are they going to match their statements with the appropriate actions?”