Fresno State President and Ag College Dean Todd Fitchette
Sandra Witte, left, dean of the Jordan College of Agricultural Sciences and Technology at Fresno State, and University President Joseph Castro oversee transitions and changes in agricultural programs intended to aid farm production and food processing in California and beyond.

Fresno State eyes 'next level' achievements in viticulture, enology

University president continues quest to build partnerships with the goal to help students and agriculture industry achieve greater success

California’s largest Central Valley city is not merely a hub for billions of dollars of food production. It also boasts a quality crop of viticulture and enology graduates who have grown to success in the private and public sector.

Secure in the heart of two neighboring cities with a combined population of more than 600,000 – Fresno and Clovis – the Fresno State campus is also home to a slice of rural America with a 1,000-acre farm that produces grapes, almonds, citrus, olives, and offers livestock programs in poultry, sheep, swine, horses, beef and dairy.

Fresno State viticulture and enology students are exposed to a 120-acre vineyard and a bonded winery on the main campus. Raisin, table and wine grapes are grown on the campus farm, which includes a raisin processing plant.

Other campus amenities for agriculture students include a fresh-fruit citrus packing line, donated earlier this year by Bee Sweet Citrus.

All of this goes to aid the educational pursuits of roughly 2,500 agricultural students, which make up 10 percent of the total university enrollment of 25,000.

New leadership

Fresno State (California State University, Fresno) has seen some significant changes in its top leadership in the most-recent decade.

In 2013, Joseph Castro was appointed the eighth president of Fresno State. A little more than a year later, Castro named Sandra Witte, then the associate dean of academic affairs, as interim dean of the Jordan College of Agricultural Sciences and Technology after former dean Charles Boyer took a similar position at Montana State University.

Eighteen months later, Witte’s appointment became permanent as she impressed those around her, including Castro, with her skills to lead the growing agricultural college.

Castro also moved with impressive speed, releasing his report titled: “President’s Commission on the Future of Agriculture” on his 100th day at the helm.

On the first page of the report, Castro writes: “Fresno County is the epicenter for agriculture world-wide. This commission will help fulfill my vision for Fresno State to become the front-runner in providing California agriculture with its future employees, industry leaders and innovators in production agriculture and food processing.”

Since publishing his report, Castro hasn’t stopped moving and talking about how Fresno State can be a beacon for agriculture education and a good partner to the region’s food producers and processors.

Witte’s ultimate appointment as the permanent leader of the Jordan College of Agricultural Sciences and Technology soon faced the challenge of having to fill several teaching positions and a vacancy at the top of the viticulture and enology department at the same time. That process is ongoing.

“It just happened that four people faced retirement age at the same time,” she said.

Castro and Witte sat down with Western Farm Press for an exclusive interview to update the agriculture community about the transition within V&E, which has a long history of collaboration with commercial agriculture and farmers in the state.

High on the current to-do list is the search to fill the chair position in V&E. This will technically be a dual role, according to Witte. The new V&E chair will also serve as the director of the university’s Viticulture and Enology Research Center. The role will be divided 75 percent leadership and 25 percent teaching and research.

The V&E Research Center is one of three centers the university operates under the California Agricultural Technology Institute. The other two are the Center for Irrigation Technology and the Center for Agriculture Business.

Each is configured differently in terms of how they relate to academics, Witte says.

“No other academic department on campus has the same kind of configuration with the research center integrated with the department to the degree that we have with viticulture and enology,” she said.

Castro is working to assure the commercial wine and grape industry that the university remains a willing partner to the industry, which he says has “always looked to the graduates from the viticulture and enology program at Fresno State to meet their needs.” Castro is thankful for the assistance of industry leaders during this time of transition to help identify the ideal leader to carry the program to the success he envisions for the university.

Applied Research

Last summer, the university opened its new Jordan Agricultural Research Center, a 30,000 square-foot research and training facility funded by a $29.5 million gift from Hanabul “Bud” and Dee Jordan in 2009.

The first floor of the facility includes research areas for robotics, water modeling, and visual and sensory evaluation. It is also home to the California Water Institute. The second floor houses environmental air and water quality laboratories. On the third floor are genomics, entomology, microbiology, and plant physiology labs.

The facility includes a training and conference center, sponsored through a $500,000 donation from The Wonderful Company. Bayer CropScience agreed to sponsor the entomology lab through a $200,000 pledge. Other sponsors include: Earl and Beverly Knobloch, Dr. Harry B. Moordigian, Jr., and Olam.

“The new Jordan Center compliments our farm which is thriving in so many ways,” Castro says.

He believes the university can attract research dollars from contracts and grants to the Jordan College. This will need to include partnerships with private industry which continues to be an important addition in an era of limited public dollars for university programs and agricultural research.

“My belief is we have the recipe for success,” Castro says. “The challenge for us going ahead is the state funds we receive are not sufficient to maintain our excellence or even get us to the next level.”

Castro continued, “I think our partners are realizing that and they want us to be stronger and better at serving the needs here.”

Witte says the Jordan Center is just one of several applied research facilities on campus to address agricultural issues. Research into irrigation technology, improved food safety, environmental stewardship, economic performance and long-term agricultural sustainability are ongoing through the Agricultural Research Institute (ARI).

ARI is a program of the California State University system through the state’s four agricultural colleges: Fresno State, Chico State, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and Cal Poly Pomona.

One of the many goals for Witte is providing students with useful, hands-on, real-world experience they can take to industry.

Industry support

Castro and Witte are pleased with the support Fresno State receives from the agriculture community.

This support comes in part from Nat DiBuduo, president of the Fresno-based Allied Grape Growers; himself a Fresno State alum and former student in the V&E department.

“I am enthusiastically anticipating the next evolution for the university’s viticulture and enology program,” DiBuduo says. “I have seen firsthand the benefits the program has provided the students.”

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