By Richard Gaiser

Why does Sonora High School need all 130 acres of Wildcat Ranch for agriculture instruction? It’s easy envision classes in food production where each student has a 200-foot row of vegetables supplied with the most efficient drip irrigation system. In 20-foot sections that student could grow broccoli, cauliflower, spinach, swiss chard, beets, onions, garlic, tomatoes, etc.

Land could be used to grow flowers and other ornamentals with instruction on “fire safe” plants and landscape design. Combine this with education on growing landscape plants with water efficiency in mind. This would be essential training for landscape architects and nurserymen. A rose garden, if large enough can be an excellent teaching tool for not only how to grow and prune roses, but also to teach grafting various rose types and colors to various root stocks, the same information needed in grafting of food production vines and trees.

What about space for modular facilities for housing hydroponics instruction in growing food, fiber and fodder? This is a rapidly growing technological area that can have a major influence on feeding tomorrow’s world with efficiencies that are just beginning to be understood.

Raising bees for pollination and honey production is another function of agriculture. Although an apiary may not take up a quarter of an acre, it certainly needs to have its location planned for. So much is known about bees, but so much remains to be understood. It is quite possible that given a safe location of the hives, private beekeeping enterprises could provide much of this education at a minimal cost.

Our county has a big involvement in forestry. Familiarization with the many trees that have commercial benefits in our local private and public forests would be essential. Timber production with fire safety in mind has to be a top priority for agricultural education facilities. What acreage would be needed to provide this training?

Propagation from seeds would be essential and the harvesting of those seeds and the preparation of seedbeds would provide needed background for future foresters. Education on the writing of timber harvest plans and compliance with California Timber Harvesting laws would provide personnel for much needed jobs in the timber and forestry business.

Training in planting, thinning and harvesting and how to create a healthy forest could easily be provided. Partnerships with the timber industry and Columbia College could prove financially beneficial.

Although 130 acres would graze few cattle, sheep, or horses, classes in livestock husbandry could easily be taught. Donations could be solicited from major companies such as Purina, Nutrina, Powder River, Associated Feeds, A.L. Gilbert or Elk Grove Milling.

Classes in the care and breeding of different livestock classifications could be taught. Cattle (both dairy and beef), goats (meat and milking), sheep (for meat and wool), swine, poultry, etc., all have needs for experienced people that will provide excellent careers.

Many different fruit and nut crops can be grown at our elevation. Walnuts are all over the Mother Lode, both English and black varieties. A small grove of these trees could be a good training area for disease recognition and prevention, pruning, growing and harvest.

Olive trees produce a product for both eating and oil. In the United States, most of our olive oils are imported, although the industry is becoming larger in California. As orchards and vineyards are planted, knowledgeable growers must be made available.

The wine industry has existed for generations in the Mother Lode counties. It is a growing source of income not only for wine, but also for tourism. How many varieties are there? Can they be all be grown here? We also have crops of fresh table grapes and raisins. An entire semester class could provide an excellent background for students wishing to pursue a career in viticulture. Everything from wine labeling to fermenting and growing could be taught.

As members of the agricultural industry in California, we have often discussed with the school board the number of family wage jobs that are available in California agriculture. Lest we forget that when the great recession hit in 2008, agriculture provided a major financial lifesaver for California’s economy. California agriculture feeds the world.

The need for agricultural education has not decreased, but substantially increased. It is not that our agriculture instructors have failed to make this site a viable agricultural campus. Our ag instructors have time and again attempted to increase the size and complexity of this campus. They have worked with committees of interested individuals on many projects to move this forward, but each time have run into obstacles at the administrative level.

No one can go to a charitable organization or agricultural business and ask to develop a vineyard and its teaching amenities without a school board approved plan on what is approved and expected. Similarly, without a site and approved plan, the Park Foundation will not be able to get funding.

The ability to develop an approved plan is what has been missing.

Richard Gaiser was a member of the school advisory committee appointed to help determine the future of the Dome and the Wildcat Ranch. He grew up in Tuolumne County and graduated from Sonora High School, where he studied agriculture participated in all aspects the Future Farmers of America. A rancher, he has spent more than 30 years working in agricultural communities.

Richard Gaiser is a member of Sonora Dome and Wildcat Ranch District Advisory Committee, a business owner and participant with the local agriculture community.