UC small farms program carries on

Last fall I lamented the demise of the University of California small farms program.

The highly successful program is not dead. Its administrative services have been merged into another existing office, explains Dan Dooley, vice president of UC’s Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources. UC Cooperative Extension small farm advisors are still on the job.

Dooley and several others pointed out the error. I was misled by a news release that implied the small farms program was killed by UC. However, Dooley, who is part of a Tulare County, Calif., farm family, and others, added that the same commentary was correct about the disinvestment in Cooperative Extension programs over the past couple of decades.

UC and its Cooperative Extension are the cornerstones of one of the most productive agricultural areas in the world through talented, dedicated county farm advisors and specialists. However, California’s ongoing budget woes have slowly eroded a research and information program that was once the envy of the world.

Dooley, a Visalia agricultural and environmental attorney, was appointed to his post late in 2007. He has worked diligently to turn that around and says better times are ahead.

Dooley has ruffled a few feathers internally with the business approach he brought to the UC division with nearly 1,000 specialists and advisors and an annual budget of $300 million. He has basically preserved what he inherited and in the financial morass of California, that is saying plenty. Despite the fact the ANR budget has been cut by 20 percent recently, not one farm advisor or specialist position has been eliminated under his watch. He has achieved that largely by streamlining administrative services like he did with merging the small farms program into another area.

“My goal is to limit administrative costs and provide more support for farm advisors and specialists.”

ANR has taken some disproportionate cuts since the mid 1990s, and Dooley stopped that bleeding. In fact, he says UC and ANR should fare better in the future under a state mandate that says funding for UC will not drop below 10 percent of the state budget. However, he added, ANR and its Cooperative Extension will never return to staffing levels of 25 years ago.

Dooley says the ag industry has changed with business specialists like pest control advisers, private dairy nutritionists and the like taking some of the tasks farm advisors had 25 years ago. “The university is being asked to work on bigger issues such as water and water quality, and this is changing the roles of advisors and specialists.”

Nevertheless, Dooley said ANR has restored some staff it has lost during the slow erosions over the past decade. Many of these were lost to retirements and never filled. “We continue to hire, and the university continues to attract candidates with outstanding qualifications,” he says, adding there are many vacancies yet to fill, largely through retirements.

Agricultural undergraduate enrollments at Davis, Berkeley and Riverside continue to increase. The ANR college student GPA is the highest of any division on the UC Davis campus. The challenge of producing food to feed the world is attracting young people to agriculture.

“I am pretty optimistic over the long run,” Dooley says.

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