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Monday, January 25, 2021

Farm Center director living ‘his dream’

Pierce Farm Center Director Robert McBroom grew up in North Hills, Calif. on a three-quarter acre lot where he raised animals and showed at fairs as an 11-year-old member of 4-H agriculture and farming club.

“He raised every animal known to God and man,” his 82-year-old mother, Agnes McBroom said.

It’s easy to see where Robert derives a good part of his ability. His mother has a tenacious resume that includes stints on executive committees and boards ranging from Soroptimists International to 4-H and several health care and family foundations, to boot.

As a child, Robert raised and sold quail. That business took off rapidly from a dozen quail to more than 3,000 in just one year. Later, he said, he cultivated hydroponic basil.

Robert attended Pierce and took Instructor of Business Administration Richard Skidmore’s agriculture business and marketing class.

Skidmore forced his hand into attending a poultry convention in Fresno, Calif. widening McBroom’s perspective and, he says, acting as a turning point in his professional life, which is harmonically fused to his family and community life.

Robert and Cathy McBroom have been married for 13 years and have three children together, daughter Jordan, 11, son Brody, 9, and son Mason, 3. Husband and wife both worked at Cicero’s Pierce farm stand when they were young themselves.

Roy Barker, Robert’s father-in-law, has long worked with him and says that he has always wanted to do something like the Pierce Farm Center (PFC) since his time in 4-H.

“He calls this his dream,” Barker said.

Cathy said their journey together to PFC started in 1992 with a Christmas tree lot on the corner of Topanga Canyon and Ventura boulevards.

Then in 1995, they ran into staff from a haunted house from the National Armory in Van Nuys called Castle Frightmare, where they would later help out the nonprofit organization that ran it.

The organization wanted to stop their show and offered all them all the wares of the business. The McBrooms seized the opportunity.

“You give us $100 to prove that you’re going to take everything without leaving the stuff you don’t want behind and you can have it all, all the trailers, all the walls, all the electrical, the lights — you name it — our whole business,” she said. “And we’re thinking, ‘This is a goldmine.’”

They first opened shop at the site of a closed Levitz warehouse in Northridge, Calif. in 1997 after a year of building, organizing and budgeting. One year later, they moved to a Boeing lot in Chatsworth, Calif., where they stayed until security changes after Sept. 11 forced them to leave.

Agnes says with a laugh that they’re a Pierce family, noting that she, her daughter and son have all attended the college. So when it was time to move locations, Robert thought of the place he had gotten his start.

“‘It should be on the corner. I just love that corner.’ He just idolized this area,” Agnes said.

The McBrooms met with Larry Kraus, a personal friend and Pierce staff member who introduced them to Darroch “Rocky” Young, Pierce president in 2002.

The McBrooms thought they were good candidates for the Pierce Master Plan that Young had just completed, so they put in an RFP and won.

In 2003, the McBrooms ran a successful haunt on the current site of the Child Development Center to prove their skill at operating a facility. In 2005 they were awarded the lease.

“We’ve been here ever since, following their vision, developing their master plan and enjoying it. It was all their master plan; we just made it all come alive,” Cathy said. “We’re the builders, the developers, the operators, and we’re a family.”

The PFC makes 80 to 90 percent of annual income in the fourth quarter of the year from the Halloween Harvest Festival and its Christmas tree sales.

“This is a nine-year testament of doing the vision plan that the college set out with – finding the balance – and keeping your eyes and ears open to find out what the pulse of the city is looking for,” Robert said.

In order to maintain PFCs sustainability, projects are done in stages and scrapped when they don’t work.

“Some things are winners; some things are losers. You’ve got to kind of shake it and figure out what you’re going to make a change to, but you can’t give up. You’ve got to keep moving forward,” Robert said. “If we’re not connecting into the needs of the community, we miss the mark and we cease to exist.”

The Foundation for Pierce College was the landlord of PFC until two years ago, when the college administration sought direct control, Senior Program Director Floriya Borzenkova said.

PFC started as just the market with a place for corn maze but took over a larger piece of property after John Forneris, a farmer hired by the Los Angeles Community College District,  exited the farming project, Borzenkova said.

“If Robert is not doing anything it’s going to be grass and weeds, and that’s it,” she said.

Pierce originally had a concept for a cultural Agriculture Education Center at the location of the current PFC, but nothing was happening so he put in the pizza farm for the agriculture education, Agnes said.

“Everything he’s done is to improve the land, the farm and to improve the image of Pierce,“ Agnes said. “He saw the mechanical cow at a show, how great it would be for the kids to have a hands-on experience to milk a cow.”

PFC and the Foundation overcame some significant time and cost challenges to continue farming. For instance, when construction of the CDC was underway, several field elements essential to the farming operation were destroyed. The Foundation footed the bill, Borzenkova said.

Kathy Zanghi, Financila Manager and Borzenkova were around when Cathy gave birth to their youngest son, who they say has essentially been raised in the PFC trailer since two weeks of age.

“They’re nice people – I love all of them – they raise their family well,” Borzenkova said. “They have very high family values.”

Lori Bolin, lead teacher at the CDC, says they call him “Farmer Robert” in class, and when Farmer Robert told them that the pigs are very clean animals the children scratched their heads because it didn’t make sense to them.

“What they thought they knew. The reality is different,” Bolin said.

The children at the CDC go to the farm on several trips throughout the year, including a year-end celebration that includes a hayride.

Bolin beams while she talks about how she is so fortunate to have a farm in her own backyard that caters to young children.

“I’m probably confusing the McBrooms with the Agriculture Department so forgive me for that, but we’re all a part of the same family which is Pierce College, which is pretty cool,” Bolin said.

Desiree Cooper is market supervisor and has been with PFC for seven years and says the McBrooms put employees first, themselves second.

“That man I tell you, he is something else. He has so many ideas and what he has done here from what it used to be it’s phenomenal – it’s crazy. He’s got the drive; he’s got the bite,” Cooper said. “We don’t have places like this left. We need places like this.”

PFC head carpenter Pat Gatzow, who has been in construction for 35 years and has seen his share of “crazy” bosses, says he expresses his happiness about his boss with the new workers by making it a fun work atmosphere.

“He’s given us the opportunity to come out here and be creative. Every year we have new projects,” Gatzow said. We didn’t have the carousel the first couple of years; he purchased that. We built all the fencing and set it in the ground; he has a jump pillow for the kids to jump on – the kids love that stuff. He’s always reinvesting, adding and adding.”

Agnes is helping her son establish a legacy foundation to continue the message of PFC.

“We want something to have the sustainability of the farm and agriculture in the San Fernando Valley, so the children growing up, when they see a chicken they know what a chicken looks like. It’s not a plastic-wrapped thing in a supermarket,” she said.

The vision of Robert’s foundation is to maintain the sustainability of the PFC and develop it as an expansion of agriculture awareness, agriculture education and also give back to the campus.

“We can always plan and say we want to do all these things, but it has to be tied into where the college’s vision is as well,” he said. “Students that have been a part of our animal care program. We encourage them to take equine classes. We’ll scholarship them. If you give us a C or better and we will pay for your classes.”

Robert cares for his community and his family and he puts his money where his heart is.

“When I started having cardiac arrhythmias,” Agnes said. “Robert said, ‘You’re done.’ So I came home one day and he said, ‘I just spent $14,000.’ I said on what? He said, ‘I just bought a corn roaster.’ He did this so I wouldn’t go back to work.”

Agnes and Bob McBroom joined other family members and those like family who work at the farm.

“Fancy B’s” was built for Brody, who has wanted to be a chef since he was 5 years old, Cathy said.

“When one of our vendors was going out of business and selling that, they came to us and asked us if we were interested. My husband and I just looked at each other and said, ‘We have to make Brody’s dream come true.’”

But Robert is concerned for the future of the area, considering the Warner Center 2035 Plan.

“We’re moving into the Jetsons. Sometimes we need to take a step back,” he said. “No one is ever going to tear down condos for cornfields — you’ve got to keep something,”

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