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Tuesday, October 20, 2020

College district leased, sold roughly 55 acres of Pierce farmland since 1980s

For nearly three decades, parts of Pierce’s farmland have been declared surplus and sold or leased for millions of dollars with a fraction of profits going back to the Agriculture Department.

Historically, the college is as immersive as its sprawling, flora- and fauna-filled meadows. It has welcomed the community to experience rodeos and Farm Walks, watch fireworks shows and hear Civil War cannons, walk corn mazes and hike hilly trails, all while providing a living classroom to thousands of animal science students.

Leland Shapiro, chair of agriculture, has been at Pierce for all but three presidents.

“We used to be self-supporting here. If they take anymore land from us and we have an economic down, [the farm] will have to go,” he said.

Despite its storied campus, the Los Angeles Community College District has used Pierce land as a source of revenue, while school administrations have seen it as both a financial burden and a way to entice the community through their doors.

Pierce faced “financial insecurity,” as president Herb Ravetch stated in the 1982 Master Plan, but he significantly increased farm funding and consolidated the Agriculture Department as a way to save money, Shapiro said.

Ravetch was replaced by David Wolf in 1985, who saw two LACCD land deals take place by 1987 worth more than $4 million at a loss of nearly 21 acres — 17.5 acres of farmland and 3.3 acres of arboretum.

“The 17 acres of alfalfa that used to be on the other side of the West Valley Occupational Center was my alfalfa field that I used to feed my cows,” Shapiro said. “When they sold that, the district, the board of trustees, promised us money to make up the lost feed. They broke their promise.”

The other development under Wolf’s administration was on the southwest corner of Oxnard Street and Winnetka Avenue, which razed Pierce’s upper arboretum.

“That was a part of the horticulture unit. They tore those down to build four or five homes – very expensive homes – and the money – the proceeds – was supposed to come back to help our horticulture program,” he said. “We never got a penny for that.”

Pierce is mostly funded on the number of Full-time Equivalent (FTE) students irrespective of its 426 acre campus. So if it cost more to educate students on the farm, the Agriculture Department must bridge that gap with fundraisers or sales of animal products such as eggs, dairy and livestock.

“Our allocations are just much too small for the kind of services we need to provide to our students. I’m looking at the financial and operational component and trying to support that as best I can,” said Vice President of Administrative Services Rolf Schleicher.

President Dan Means abruptly shut down the school’s dairy farm in 1990, citing expenses. Students had run the dairy store since the school’s founding. It generated enough income to subsidize the chicken, horse, pig and sheep units, Shapiro said.

“I said we brought in $100,000 in milk sales. He said, ‘I’m not looking at income right now, I’m just looking at expenses.’ How do you respond to that?” Shapiro said. “When you got rid of the dairy, there was nothing to carry [the farm], and from that point we started losing money on a regular basis.”

The Roundup reached out to the administration for comments more than a month ago. President Burke canceled the day before the interview. It’s been rescheduled for May 8. Schleicher said in an email reply they “have not had enough planning sessions to fully envision what a college farm may look like in years to come.”

There have been 15 leaders from when farm acreage started dropping in the late 1980s. Shapiro said he and other faculty would complain that land atrophy worsened the ability to raise animals, grow crop and train students when the talk of developments would start.

Protester Gordon Murley, president of the Woodland Hills Homeowner’s Organization, said these deals did not contribute to students’ education but did strip away the campus’ beauty and that one violated the U.S. Constitution.

Joe Cicero ran his namesake farm stand and worked about 30 acres of land along Victory Boulevard for close to 10 years. Though he wasn’t without controversy, he was “a friend to the farm,” Shapiro said.

“Whenever I needed a piece of equipment or something done, he said, ‘Where, when?’ and he jumped to it,” he said.

The ground lay fallow after Cicero Farms left in 1995 and other deals fell through. Financial woes and community pressure about the open land produced a major proposal for an 18-hole golf course by equine entrepreneur Eddie Milligan and golfer Jim Colbert.

On her way out, then-President Mary E. Lee told the Daily News in January 1996 that the farm needed to consider agricultural tourism to bridge the gap between student enrollment and donations.

First articulated by president Dan Means, approved by Pierce College Council under E. Bing Inocencio, it was abandoned by LACCD just after Darroch “Rocky” Young took the school’s helm in 1999.

The golf course idea was sunk when Young’s 2002 Master Plan — a detailed document projecting the college’s commitment over a span of years — espoused the stewardship of Pierce’s “unique urban land resources” as well as its utilization to “invigorate agricultural and environmental education.”

A farmer’s market and agricultural education center on the corner of De Soto Avenue and Victory Boulevard, in the spot where Cicero farmed tomatoes, strawberries, corn and pumpkins, was part of the plan’s manifest. But, after two requests for proposals in 2002 failed to secure a contractor for Young’s market idea, the land once again went dormant.

“When Mary Lee was here and the plan that she proposed, we actually proposed. We were supposed to get originally $19 million [from bond money] to build a state-of-the art show-and-tell facility,” Shapiro said. “As there was money overspent on all the other projects, agriculture or animal science became very last, and we got very little of that $19 million.”

Then in 2005, the Foundation for Pierce College signed a two-acre lease with LACCD and hired Robert McBroom and his company Asylum Productions, Inc. to run a Halloween Harvest Festival, Christmas tree lot and eventually a farmer’s market as a way to fundraise money for its operations, Foundation officials said.

The Foundation is a fundraising and community outreach entity founded in 1970, which acts as a local fiscal agent for money earned or donated to the college rather than the district where spending the money takes longer and is more bureaucratic.

Shapiro said that no money was promised from the Foundation’s lease and subsequent Pierce Farm Center, as it became known, but both organizations provided material support of farm operations by providing labor and equipment the college couldn’t afford or didn’t own, he said.

PFC is, in a much smaller way, the realization of Young’s agricultural education center concept through community outreach on elementary school field trips and the Pizza Farm, which is a literal representation of what live crops and animals go into making the pie.

“When we started it was supposed to be the Farm Center and a place for the corn maze. Then later [McBroom] took over the farm [on the corner] because the farmer quit,” said Floriya Borzenkova, the Foundation’s senior program director. “It’s hard for him to do this. The college has more [farming] knowledge, but at the same time the college doesn’t have enough [equipment] and money to take care of this land. If Robert is not doing anything, it’s going to be like grass and weeds and that’s it.”

However, the college exerted control over PFC after the lease with the district ended in 2010, and the agreement with the Foundation agreement ended in 2012, because of “transitions” happening at the time, said Associate Vice President Larry Kraus.

“Our contract expired, so we don’t have any relationship [with PFC] right now,” Borzenkova said.

According to Foundation 990 tax records, the private/public relationship Young called out in his plan contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars per year to their operational fund.

Documents the Roundup has collected through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) show that McBroom’s attempts to negotiate Asylum’s contract with the college were ignored.

In a Jan. 9, 2013 email, Schleicher intended to address only Kraus about a complaint from McBroom but he unintentionally included McBroom in the reply:

“… I do not see ANY compelling reason to continue with the Farm Enterprise as it is currently run,” Schleicher wrote. “We lose money on this enterprise from a P&L perspective and it does not support our college programs either. To move forward, we need to work on a Business Plan for a new venture to utilize our property more effectively such as a weekly swap meet and farmers market, or some other operation depicted and approved through a Business Plan. I would like to begin the process of notifying Mr. McBroom of my decision to close down the Farm now that the contract has expired. Do not disclose or engage a meeting with Mr. McBroom (his emphasis) until we have met to discuss the facts of the contract and equipment ownership. I want to keep our claims to a minimum. He is free to bid on future ideas and concepts we endorse that will maximize our profits and support the farm needs currently unmet in our 10100 [general fund] programs.” (Schleicher’s emphasis)

Asylum was served a 30 day eviction notice on July 10, 2013, by Schleicher who said PFC was “taking advantage of the college,” said McBroom in an LACCD meeting.

“I feel the same way about the farm center as I did when I initially came to it. It wasn’t a strong relationship for the college,” Schleicher said.

They have been in mediation ever since. Neither party will talk meaningfully on record.

In March 2014, the college took control over another Foundation fundraiser, the Topanga Vintage Market, which Foundation officials said surprised them.

“Our main source for the operational fund was the Vintage Market. We were planning for a long-term contract for a swap meet,” said Borzenkova. “Something’s wrong with the contract. The college took over. All the money goes to the college from the Vintage Market. They say the contract we have we cannot have.”

Kraus said the college is currently working with LACCD to resolve contract irregularities that Foundation officials say were vetted by the Enterprise office. He said the money from the Topanga Vintage Market goes to the college’s general fund and that there is no current plan to give that money to the Foundation.

The resulting loss of operational revenue from these two fundraisers is in the hundreds of thousands of dollars per year according to 990 tax forms and contract terms they shared with the Roundup.

“The board sent a letter to Kathleen [Burke] (dated March 5, 2014). We had a meeting on [April 7], then [April 8] – she canceled the first meeting,” Borzenkova said. “Kathleen came and she didn’t know what was going on. Then she told us she didn’t read the letter- she didn’t read the letter. We tried to explain what’s going on and she told us, ‘There’s no money.’ Anything we tried to tell her or explain she said, ‘There is no money. There is no money. That’s it.'”

On April 16, 2014, the Foundation’s board met to contemplate laying off longtime staff to temporarily keep their doors open. They deferred the motion to look at alternatives.

Whether the Foundation will have its contract with the Topanga Vintage Market restored so it can remain open to serve as an auxiliary business unit to dozens of department groups, including agriculture, has yet to be worked out.

Whether PFC and the college will continue joint operations on the corner of De Soto Avenue and Victory Boulevard is up to their lawyers.

“I didn’t say they didn’t provide a great value here, but also the value has to be the educational component and they are paying their fair share because I’m running a deficit right now of $3 million,” Schleicher said.

The last time Pierce lost a well-established farming operation on this corner, the crops died and plans for a golf course grew in its place.

“Pierce College is supposed to be known for basically growing on the ground – you got to show me where the things are being grown,” Cicero said. “If your selling bananas in there, where the hell’s your banana tree?”

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