Crops Unit Continues to Thrive

The COVID-19 pandemic shut down much of the Cal Poly campus in March. Students were sent home. Winter quarter finals were conducted online. Come spring quarter, faculty swiftly switched from in-person classes to virtual lessons.

But the Crops Unit still needed tending.

Faculty and staff members in the Horticulture and Crop Science Department quickly assessed what needed to be done to keep the plants and trees alive and made sure that no produce was wasted.  

In those first few weeks of the shutdown, the largest crop was the orchard’s u-pick citrus field.

“The fruit was ripe and ready to harvest,” said Market Coordinator Jill Caggiano. “We decided to donate the fruit to the SLO Food Bank and San Luis Coastal Unified School District. Without our student crews to help pick, we brought in a commercial crew to strip the field of fruit.”

Soon guidelines for essential workers were put into place, and the farm slowly started to bring students back to campus and back to work. A crew of 16 students were trained in COVID-19 safety measures, such as wearing masks, wearing gloves when handling the produce; staying six feet apart; and sanitizing vehicles, unit door handles and common surfaces.   

“We were able to continue to supply Vons grocery store in San Luis Obispo with weekly orders and added a new sales outlet at Cal Poly Meats, which initiated a drive-thru system for selling Cal Poly products,” Caggiano said. “We packed vegetable boxes weekly with items from the organic farm, orchard and row crop farm to be sold at the drive-thru. It gave us a chance to stay in touch with our customers and supply them with their favorite produce.”  

As more local businesses were allowed to reopen, the farm began to host u-picks again -- just in time for peach season. Customers who made reservations were able to return to campus, and the peaches were successfully harvested. The Crops Unit recently wrapped up its season of sweet corn and pumpkins – two of the unit’s bestselling crops. 

“We normally have the help of a full class of enterprise students to harvest these bountiful crops,” Caggiano said. “This year our student crews had to do it on their own. They went above and beyond by committing to extra shifts and coming in at 6:30 a.m. to beat the heat.”

The Crops Unit continues to sell fruit and produce through local grocery stores and outlets and hosts u-picks when fruit is available. And Cal Poly Meats still handles drive-thru orders Thursday through Saturday.

Anyone interested can sign up to receive Crops Unit market emails by emailing cpfarmmarket@calpoly.edu.

Avocado Research Underway on Campus

Nearly 500 avocado trees were planted on three acres of terraced hillside on Radio Tower Hill on the Cal Poly campus in June, the result of a partnership with the California Avocado Commission that will provide more than a decade of research opportunities for students and faculty.

Three different varieties of experimental avocado rootstock developed by researchers at UC Riverside to be resistant to Phytophthora root rot, the most common avocado disease worldwide, will be studied over the next 10 to 20 years as part of an investigation that could lead to the release of the new rootstock to commercial nurseries and growers.

Professor Lauren Garner, who teaches fruit science in the Horticulture and Crop Science Department and is overseeing the project, said research will focus on all aspects of the trees’ growth and fruit production. The rootstock, grafted to the Hass cultivar because of its predominant marketability, will take about four years to provide the first yield.

“This project is going to benefit avocado growers across the state and beyond,” Garner said. “The data will be useful to all growers because there is no point in having resistant rootstock if it impedes the growth of the Hass avocado.”

Several donors contributed more than $55,000 to make the site improvements needed for the new planting. In addition to the California Avocado Commission, Del Rey Avocado, C&M Nursery, and Righetti Ranch helped facilitate the improvements.

“Their willingness to put money into the proj­ect reinforces that the research we are doing is important to the industry,” Garner said.

Tim Spann, former research program director at the California Avocado Commission, said he is looking forward to the opportunities the project will open up for future collaborations with Cal Poly.

“The California Avocado Commission is very excited to be partnering with Cal Poly on this new rootstock trial,” Spann said. “The commission is looking forward to the benefits this trial will provide to the California avoca­do industry, in particular our growers in the northern end of the avocado growing region.”

The trial will also enable a number of research opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students, provid­ing them invaluable real-world experience.

Follow the Crops Unit on Instagram: @calpolyfarm and @calpolyorganicfarm.

 

Read more stories in the 2020 Newsletter.

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