Cal Poly Land

Personal Journal
















Spring ‘06







#1 (3/29/06) – University Tree Walk – Dr. Matt Ritter


            Today’s trip took us through the innards of the campus we know and love, but turned our attention to some special trees that most don’t even know live among us.  Because we are situated in a Mediterranean climate, we have the ability to support the growth of rare species that may only occur otherwise in Chile, South Africa, SW Australia, or the actual Mediterranean. Guided by the impressively knowledgeable Dr. Ritter, a botany professor and director of the Cal Poly Plant Conservatory and campus Tree Project, the class discovered there’s more to the trees in our midst than twigs and leaves.  As a forestry major, I have taken this tour multiple times, but Dr. Ritter has an amazing ability to administer it from a new perspective and with added facts each go around.  This time, the tour was given in evolutionary terms, with a story about human development used as a comparison to tree progeneration.  Dr. Ritter had the entire class squat, as an ape would do, with only himself standing semi-erect.  Although in his time he would have been considered a freak, he would still propagate, and his stand-up genetics would slowly spread through the population via pro-creation.  As we now well know, the ability to stand up is highly valuable, and the one freak ape has spawned mass advantageous mutation.  Although the staunch creationists would not agree, this is the process of speciation, and trees have taken a similar approach to differentiating and developing beneficial characteristics.  Here is a list of the highlighted trees from our trip, with the advantageous mutations some of them have developed over the eons:















#2 (4/3/06,4/5/06) – Geology and Soils / Poly Canyon Hike


            The first half of this section found us in the classroom, learning the basics of soils from our own in house expert, Hunter Francis.  Although I have already taken an introductory soil science course, it was an interesting review of the concepts, including the following major points:



The second half of this section lead us to Poly Canyon, home of runners, walkers,

bikers, and most importantly soils and the abundant life they so willingly support.  Just two years ago, a gate was constructed to prevent traffic, smog, and crowding that could potentially disrupt the health and tranquility of the area.  Unfortunately, the peacefulness of this retreat will be heavily affected by the new on campus housing project that will house 3,000 people, shopping, and the cars that follow.  Luckily, we were able to enjoy the space before the interruption, and observed the following natural phenomena along the way:



            The other stop on the Poly Canyon trip, although contrastingly unnatural, is really quite interesting.  Situated on the foot of Caballo Peak, the 10 acre experimental architecture site has been used since the 1960’s by forward thinking design students.  the following is a sample of the fascinating structures housed here:









#3 (4/7/06) – Sustainability Lecture – Mr. Peter Raven


            In preparation for earth day on April 22, Cal poly played host to world renowned environmentalist Peter Raven.  In his lecture titled “Biodiversity, Sustainability, and the Modern University,” Raven encouraged Cal Poly students and staff to inform and set an example for the public about global sustainability.  As a polytechnic school, Raven feels we can have a significant impact on improving technology that will lessen the human strain on the global environment.  After drawing us in by praising the area for its diverse north-south biology, Raven quickly warned of the consumptive pace at which we are clocking.  As Americans, the largest consumers of all, it takes experts like Raven to remind us half of the world lives on less than $2 a day, and still another eighth of the world could be considered starving based on caloric intake.  To compound this problem, he reminded us that the world population could grow by another 2 billion people before we reach a level of global sustainability.  in order to reach this goal, though, Raven stressed that we must have a voracious appetite for learning, especially by experimentation and experience, which probably not coincidentally falls right in line with Cal Poly’s slogan, “Learn by Doing.”

            As a preface to Raven’s speech, Dean of the College of Agriculture David Wehner spoke about the environmentally conscious steps being taken here, specifically highlighting the addition of environmental management and earth science majors, and the change of name to the College of Agriculture, Food, and Environmental resources.  Raven applauded these measures, reminding us of their importance based on statistics such as: since 1950, soil erosion has increased 20%, 20% of agricultural land has been lost, 1/3 of forested land has been destroyed, carbon dioxide production has increased by 1/6, and 6-8% of the ozone layer has disappeared.  He assured the audience that we could not continue on that sort of course without catastrophic consequences.

            Although Raven repeated much of what I’ve heard statistically, and much of the gloom and doom that pervades the environmental profession, I enjoyed his grassroots take on tackling the problem.  He spoke to each of us students individually, imploring us to continue and participate actively in the learning process, with the ultimate goal of promoting global sustainability.  He was a dynamic speaker, and his Ghandi-like finish left a lasting impression: “the world provides enough to satisfy every man’s need but not every man’s greed.”




#4 (4/10/06) – Irrigation Training and Research Center – Dr. Charles Burt


            Living in a water deprived state, proud home of the “Cadillac Desert,” this facility carries some serious weight.  The ITRC, founded by BioResource and Agricultural Engineering professor Dr. Burt, is one of the most foremost authorities on testing water flow in the world.  The center is privately funded and runs like a business, but provides a valuable medium for student employment and experimentation in managing our water resources, emblematic of Cal Poly’s learn by doing approach.  Dr. Burt started his talk by providing us with statistics that put the water issue in perspective, such as the fact that 80% of diverted water goes to agricultural purposes.  Cal Poly is unique in that unlike most agricultural water that must be ordered in advance, our water comes from the on-site Indonesian Reservoir, which receives its water via the Whale Rock Reservoir and pumping of Drumm Reservoir by the ITRC.  Because water is in such demand, especially for agricultural purposes that sustain life on earth, testing and controlling its flow rates is vitally important.  The closed system at the ITRC allows Dr. Burt and others to do this extensively, using structures such as canals and flumes, and specialized equipment such as magnetic and hydrocoustic flow measurement devices and Cal Poly’s own ITRC flap gate.  These experiments aim at controlling and streamlining excessive water consumption worldwide, which has contributed to the following problems highlighted by Dr. Burt, besides the fact that he asserts there is not enough water:



#5 (4/12/06) – Arboretum / Native Plants – Dr. David Keil


            I thoroughly enjoyed this hike with botany professor Dr. Keil, as it provided a stark contrast between a man-made garden and native vegetation in its natural state.  The former refers to the Leaning Pine Arboretum, our first stop and home to an impressive collection of trees and other plants.  It was here that we stopped to thank a green plant for all it can provide, including oxygen, food, building materials, paper, and medicine, among other valuable necessities.  We also were reminded that the essence of flowers is plant sex, as had been intimated by Dr. Ritter on an earlier trip.

            As we trekked further up the hill, the native plant community manifested itself.  As Dr. Keil had mentioned in his intro, he came to San Luis Obispo county to study the staggering plant diversity that occurs here, thanks to the Mediterranean climate (see discussion in entry #1) and the varying topographical features, from desert to mountains to coastline.  This area was just a small chunk of that, but still provided a good representation of the diversity.  Dr. Keil informed us that we were performing anthropogenic botany, because the plant community had been influenced by human activity such as construction, fragmentation, and the introduction of exotics.  The hillsides around here are mostly dominated by coast live oak woodlands and chaparral, interspersed by some of the following native plant life and attributes:



#6 (4/17/06) – Archaeology and History – Alison Preston


            Although we were inside for this meeting, it felt as if we took a trip through time while standing on Cal Poly Land.  This lecture gave me a completely different perspective on just how Cal poly came to be the impressive institution it is today.  Rather than give a history of the area and university in strictly human terms, Ms. Preston’s presentation “from the Chumash to the Chancellor: the History and Use of Cal Poly Land” focused more on the land itself and how its appearance, use, and size has evolved to now comprise the largest land holding university in California.  The story told by the land was broken down into the following eras:













#7 (4/19/06) – Stenner Creek Trestle / Sheep Unit


            The first stop on this dual mission led us up to the impressive 900 foot Stenner Creek railroad trestle.  Standing on top, I couldn’t help but feel the flex of the structure under my own two feet, thinking about how the bridge is able hold a multiple ton train.  Any fear I may have had was dispelled after seeing a cargo train pass before us and an Amtrak train pass just seconds after the last student stepped off the bridge.  The trestle was built as a joint improvement project with the university as mentioned in the previous entry, and stands at a very interesting infrastructure, technology, and agricultural hub.  The site of the trestle is the confluence of a four-year old avocado partnership orchard, the railroad, trans-pacific telecommunication and fiber optic lines, a waterway, and powerlines.  Very few other places see this kind of joint activity.  This is not to mention the CA King snake the class became so easily enamored with.

            The next stop of the meeting would be at the university sheep unit, but on the way we observed a little more county history.  The road leading to the old Cheda Ranch is flanked by a hand dug ditch, which diverted water from Stenner Creek and is considered the first irrigation project in the city.  Once we reached the unit, we were greeted by the progressive thinking animal science professor, Rob Rutherford, who did not present the land grubbing cowboy I had expected to see.  Dr. Rutherford gave us a brief history of the Cheda Ranch, which was originally a dairy farm, and had been replaced with sheep after the construction of the new university dairy unit.  The sheep used to be on the present day sports complex, and upon their arrival it was believed the 100 year old barn was too small, until the caretakers soon realized that the bare surface located under its roof was the worst place for the animals to stay.  This concept was at the crux of Dr. Rutherford’s stance that an exposed soil is an unhealthy soil where pathogens thrive, and to keep them covered with vegetation was to benefit all living organisms.  Cover would protect the mass of microbes living under the surface which drive the processes that allow us to reap photosynthetic plants.  To this end, Dr. Rutherford said he was not in the sheep business, but in the business of solar energy conversion and environmental health.  In his estimation, the best way to approach this is to back off the energy inputs, producing less waste and lowering the overall budget.  Most problems in agriculture, he asserted, were really they symptoms of over-management, and continuing to treat them symptomatically would only compound the problem.  Although Dr. Rutherford’s wealth of knowledge and passion for his trade was a lot to swallow in such a short format, he was easily one of the most entertaining speakers of the quarter, and I dually appreciated his stance on land stewardship.




#8 (4/24/06) – Solar House / Organic Farm


            The first stop on this on campus trip took us to the solar house, a competition spawned project undertaken by various members of the College of Architecture.  We were lucky to have been lead through by the project’s mentor, Dr. Rob Pena, whose team and house competed in the Solar Decathlon in Washington D.C., a program aimed at demonstrating affordable, liveable, solar-powered housing.  Cal Poly’s entry in the competition was a challenge to transport cross country, but once it arrived was praised for its “state of the shelf” ingenuity.  All of the appliances in the home were retail products, and the size (~600 sq. ft.), thermal comfort, and overall efficiency of the home could make it market ready with just a bit of fine tuning.  This house was a perfect example of how good design can replace mechanical muscle, and how the use of green products underscores the overall operationally green efficiency of the structure.  This student designed, professionally endorsed modular home was a remarkable achievement, and one that I would make a concerted effort at taking advantage of if it ever did hit the market.  This was a fascinating example of modern green technology at work.

            Much like the solar house, our next destination would introduce the class to an alternative way to achieve traditional goals.  The Cal Poly organic farm was started in 1989 as an experiment, and as Hunter pointed out at its entrance, provides a stark contrast to its adjacent land.  On one side, cattle trodden land is severely eroded, across the road thistle has began colonize a freshly disturbed area, while the ground in the farm’s boundaries is well covered and clearly healthy, in line with Rob Rutherford’s land stewardship principles.  The farm’s main focus is now on community supported agriculture (CSA), which cuts out the middle man and allows the townspeople to create a relationship with the land source of their food.  All produce is certified organic, which means no pesticides, irradiation, biosolids, or genetic modifications were used in their production.  The CSA program has grown from 25 to 240 people, and the participating families love to visit with the goats and chickens, which along with entertaining help with pest management and nutrient cycling on the farm.  Any threat of agricultural erosion has been mitigated by the construction of a burm, pond, and artificial wetland.  A straw bale house has been constructed as an example of living responsibly off the land, providing a good symbol for the rest of the operation.  This trip to the organic farm is making me seriously consider becoming a part of CSA.



#9 (4/26/06) – Poultry and Dairy Units


            As a precursor to this meeting, Liz Koutzos from the poultry unit came in to discuss the very sensitive subject of bio-security.  In the modern large scale poultry industry, the presence of 100,000 or more birds in one location leads to a great deal of fear over mass disease infestation and the loss of capital.  To that end, facilities are taking every measure to protect themselves from the four sources of disease: new birds, infected eggs, humans, and water.  In order to do this, bird farms must control pests such as rodents or cats, control insects, control plant growth near buildings, and most importantly, control human traffic by keeping good access records, wearing the proper apparel, showering in and out of the facility, and keeping all doors locked at all times.  Today, the new fear over the avian bird flu has highlighted the need for tighter bio-security, although this is not as much of an issue at Cal poly’s poultry unit because it is exclusively indoors.  I never realized before this lecture that poultry units were as well protected as the Pentagon.

            My alphabetized group first visited the poultry unit, which made me second guess my love for chicken.  This commercial facility was built in 1995, is considered the fourth best in the country, and houses the following specific operations:



            The next stop on a fun filled day of all too personal looks at how our food is produced took us to the dairy unit.  This extremely sterile facility was not as disturbing as the poultry unit, although that is probably because the cows are allowed to live out their natural life cycle.  After their birth, the calf is fed colosterum to build their immunity, is eventually artificially inseminated, and gives birth to another calf at about two years old.  The new mother is now considered a “fresh cow,” and is milked until kingdom come, or at least until it becomes pregnant again.  Apparently, as creatures of habit, it is more comfortable for the cow to be milked than not.  On this notion, lactating cows produce about 8 gallons of milk a day, or enough for me to eat cereal for two months.  This is a high input system, as each cow consumes about 50-100 lbs. of feed per day and about 30 gallons of water per day.  This is the antithesis of Rob Rutherford’s approach, as evidenced by the huge time and money investment in waste management at this facility.  The dual trip to the poultry and dairy unit really piqued my interest in religiously practicing CSA at the organic farm.