ALBANY, Ore. — The message from students to Linn-Benton Community College President Greg Hamann was clear during a recent tour of the school’s greenhouse and 2-acre farm in Albany, Ore.
It was: Save the horticulture program, before it’s too late.
LBCC suspended horticulture and crop production in March as community colleges across the state brace for budget cuts. Students currently enrolled in the programs will be allowed to finish their degrees, but new students are no longer being accepted.
Brittany Franzoni plans to graduate from the horticulture program in June with a certificate in profitable small farming. She and fellow student Karen Canan led the tour for LBCC President Hamann on April 29 to make their case for keeping the curriculum.
“It’s an important skill to be able to learn how to take care of the Earth,” Franzoni said. “This program teaches us how to do that.”
Walking past small plots of leafy greens and orchards of apple, pear and cherry trees, Hamann recounted growing up on a dairy in Minnesota and lamented how more people are losing touch with agriculture.
But he said the decision to suspend horticulture boils down to economic sustainability.
“Right now, the economics are not in your favor,” Hamann said.
Community colleges face a potential shortfall in the state budget, said Ann Buchele, LBCC vice president of academic affairs and workforce development. With funding proposed at $590 million, Buchele said that is not enough to maintain current service levels.
“Over 50% of our funding comes from the state,” Buchele said. “Most community colleges are in our situation.”
Given the situation, the LBCC Board of Education directed the college to seek $800,000 in cuts this year and another $800,000 next year, along with a 7% tuition increase. Horticulture was one program placed on the chopping block to meet that goal.
Since the 2014-15 school year, 23 students have graduated with a degree or certificate in horticulture and crop production, including six in 2017-18. Meanwhile, total enrollment dropped from 6,000 full-time students to 5,616 students over the same period.
Buchele said eliminating the programs figures to save LBCC roughly $100,000 per year.
“We’re open to bringing something else in, but right now with enrollment so low, it’s incredibly hard to sustain it as is,” Buchele said.
Hamann said the college will assess over the summer how and whether horticulture could be brought back in some capacity.
“We haven’t just said, ‘that’s it,’” Hamann said. “If it is (economically sustainable), we’ll certainly pursue that.”
Stefan Seiter, program chair for horticulture and crop production, said the programs have been in place for more than 35 years. It was Seiter who started the farm when he joined LBCC in 2003, and today it grows more than 40 different crops.
The farm not only provides hands-on education for students, but also contributes fresh produce for local communities, Seiter said. Unless the college comes up with a plan, Seiter said nobody will be available to work the farm next summer.
“It’s already really difficult right now,” he said. “We have students leaving already with the program suspended.”
Eric Vukicevich, who was hired in June 2018 as a part-time instructor in the program, said he was surprised by the decision to cut horticulture. He described the farm as a “uniting force” for the community.
“Forever, people have built community around food,” Vukicevich said. “This is a microcosm of that.”