USF Bought a Farm

Yes, a real farm. Star Route Farms is an hour’s drive north across the Golden Gate Bridge in Bolinas. In Aug. 2017, the University purchased the property and its brand for $10.4 million.

Of that $10.4 million, only about $6.4 million was pledged from donors at the time of purchase. The farm continues to operate, serving produce to 85 restaurants and two farmers markets around the Bay Area. Interaction with students and faculty will be limited to day trips, and classes have not been regularly scheduled to meet on the farm, according to Provost Don Heller.


Tell Me About the Money

Let’s get the money out of the way. After the $6.4 million from donors, the remaining $4 million was used from the University’s cash reserves. These reserves are the cash assets of the University and made up of endowment income, net tuition, profit from the operating budget and other sources of income that the University holds. The cash reserves of the University are cyclical, peaking when tuition comes in and hitting lows at the ends of semesters after paying faculty and staff, conducting maintenance and paying other expenses.

At the time the farm was purchased, the cash reserves were at one of their low points of the year, sitting at around $70 million.

This description of cash reserves was confirmed by the University’s chief financial officer, Charlie Cross.

But in an interview on Aug. 24, Heller said that the purchase of the farm did not affect the current budget as cash reserves are “not part of the operating budget of the University, which goes into paying salaries, operations, etc.”

While the funds for the farm did not come directly from the operating budget, they did come from the same source: the cash reserves.

When we use those cash reserves for the purchase of the farm, they stay as an asset on our balance sheet (moved from cash to physical capital),” Heller said in a follow up email on Oct. 1, on this seeming to contradict where cash reserves come from, and are spent. “If they were spent instead on expendables, such as salaries and wages, financial aid, or pens and pencils, that would instead spend down assets, which negatively affects our balance sheet.”

As for the donated money, it is unclear whether these funds were in the hands of the University at the time of purchase, or if donors had just committed to giving these funds. Wilch did not respond to a follow up email on Sept. 29, asking for clarification on what percentage of the $6.4 million from donors was financed, and what percent was in hand at the time.

Peter Wilch, VP of Development, who is in charge of donor funding, explained the process of financing donations. “Any time you have a capital project, there’s always a little bit of a lag time in getting everything done.”

The progress made towards refunding the reserve funds has not had much activity. “Our balance is still about the same [as the time of purchase],” aside from a $300,000 dollar gift, Wilch said.

Wilch confirmed that the funding model of using cash reserves to make time to gather donations is standard for University capital campaigns. These campaigns are up-front expenditures for building projects and facility upgrades. He cited the construction of Lo Schiavo Science Center as having gone through a similar process to the farm.

However, according to Wilch, this style of campaign is not standard for establishing new programming, which grows as funding increases. Wilch cited the Getty Honors College or the Black Achievement Success and Engagement as examples of programs that will grow within their funding.

Every administrative official mentioned in this article stressed that the full $10.4 million used to purchase the farm will be paid back by the capital campaign being carried out solely by Wilch.

Wilch is continuously working on his lonesome to secure the $4 million taken out of cash reserves.

As, president of the University, Father Paul Fitzgerald said he did not want donations for the farm to “cannibalize” the University budget by redirecting donors from other fundraising projects.

“That’s why it took two and a half years [to purchase the farm],” Fitzgerald said. “I don’t want to go to people who are already lined up to give a gift to support current student scholarships and say, ‘Well let’s not do that, let’s do this instead.’”

During the last fiscal year, the endowment, whose income is one of the legs that fund the cash reserves, “was distributed for student scholarships,” according to the Office of Finance and Treasury’s website.

Instead of redirecting pre-existing donors to rebuild the reserves, Wilch has been working with new donors.

The farm is allowing us to make friends with a whole bunch of people who care deeply about sustainable organic farming and [don’t] know USF at all, or knew USF at a distance and weren’t engaged,” Fitzgerald said.


What Does This Farm Look Like?

Star Route Farms is the oldest continually operating farm in California and has continued to operate since USF purchased it. No classes have been scheduled to visit regularly. COURTESY OF THE OFFICE OF MARKETING AND COMMUNICATIONS

The 100-acre property has been growing produce since 1974 and is the oldest continually operating certified organic farm in California.

The property, which reaches to Bolinas Lagoon, is peppered with lemon trees, has two ponds, a river running through it and three buildings: the Caboose House, Druids Hall and a farm house where workers stay.

The Caboose House gets its name from being fashioned out of an old train caboose, while Druids Hall has scripture from John 8:32 on its living room wall: “Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.”

The area does not feel like one of the industrialized farms you would see along I-5, but closer to a forest in Oregon or Washington. Though fruits and vegetables are grown in the fields, the farm does not have any livestock.

Only one animal is allowed on the property: “Bees,” Fitzgerald said. “We get bees.”

The two homes which farm workers are not staying in — Druids Hall and the Caboose House — make it so the property can accommodate eight to 10 people, each with their own room, Fitzgerald said last spring. “Or if you want in Druids Hall,” he said “[You could] put sleeping bags and air mattresses [and] have 20 women on the ground floor and 12 men on the second floor.”


Could I Live on a Farm?

The Caboose House (pictured above) is made from an actual old train caboose! COURTESY OF THE OFFICE OF MARKETING AND COMMUNICATIONS

However, it seems that having 32 people stay in Druids Hall will not be the case for the foreseeable future.

Since the purchase over a year ago, no classes have been scheduled to meet regularly on the farm.

In Aug. 2017, Fitzgerald sent an email promising by the end of the academic year “a process for faculty and staff to submit program ideas for the use of Star Route Farms. The timeline will include steps for review and evaluation of proposals.” Later, in the spring, Fitzgerald said he could even envision the farm having student immersion or long-stay programs.

However, in an Aug. 2018 interview, Heller said, “We don’t anticipate that we’re going to have any [classes], at least in the short term, that will be scheduled out there on a regular basis,” Heller said. “Just more [day] visits for classes that are taught here on campus.”

When asked if students would be staying out on the farm longer than a day trip, Heller said, “We never said that because we knew, at least in the short term and medium term, we don’t have any plans for people to be living on the farm other than the farm workers.”

There have been day trips by students, the Board of Trustees, and faculty. Fitzgerald has had lunch on the farm with SF Symphony Director Michael Tilson Thomas, who happens to live in the neighborhood.

But groups have not been given permission to stay overnight.

Druids Hall and the Caboose House are currently being used as meeting points for day trips for classes, research and retreats. “The only reason we’re hesitating [on overnights] for now is that both those buildings are on septic systems,” Heller said. “The septic systems were built for basically one family of three or four people.” The septic was checked prior to the purchase of the farm and was assessed to be in good condition for residential use, and there were no plans for upgrading the system, according to Heller

In a follow-up email from Heller on Sept. 27, he added that the University is hesitating to schedule activities that will “have an impact on farm operations, as well as impact the Bolinas community.

Warren Weber, who founded the farm and oversaw operations from 1974 until the purchase in 2017, said last spring that the Bolinas community would likely not notice student activity on the farm and that the purchase was generally well received.

“If you had a rock concert you might run into trouble,” Weber said. “But just bringing students out [on the farm and] having classes is never going to be a problem.”

“The farm has always had a lot of people on it,” Weber said. “You know, tourists — busloads of people from different countries — have come look at organic agriculture and come to that farm and come to Marin to see what’s going on.” In fact, Prince Charles even visited the farm in 2005.


How did USF end up with a farm?

“Generally , the faculty will come forward with an idea, present it to their dean, then provost, then president, and then that’s how these ideas gain traction,” Wilch said. The purchase of Star Route Farms was proposed in 2014 by Melinda Stone, an associate professor in environmental studies.

Stone lives directly next to the farm and originally was working with other Bolinas residents to purchase it as a community asset in 2013. It was listed at the time for $12.5 million.

“That just didn’t work out,” Stone said. Then, the group asked if USF would be interested in buying a farm.

Stone quickly found an opportunity in 2014 when Fitzgerald, who had recently been appointed USF’s president, was invited to say Mass at St. Mary Magdalene, which is down the street from Star Route Farms.

“I read that in my local newspaper,” Stone said. “I was like ‘holy s- my new president is coming to town.’”

Stone went to Mass and took Fitzgerald aside to tell him about the farm down the street. “There’s probably about six levels of bureaucracy and I skipped over all of those and went straight to him and we started having correspondence,” Stone said.

“I said, ‘What do we do with a farm?’” Fitzgerald said. “The first big obstacle was just in my own imagination understanding how the farm would be a good idea for us.”

For the next three years, the University spent time working to line up donors until the Aug. 2017 purchase.

Stone now teaches a class that meets in Bolinas this semester, but does not go onto the farm. She got permission to take her class out to the farm for one day, but did not end up holding class there. “It actually was just better that we utilize other sites in Bolinas,” Stone said. “It’s not a simple process to hold a class out here, and I think there is a lot more communication that needs to happen. There’s not a simple flow; no one actually knows who to speak to [in order to utilize the farm].”

“What I hear from faculty is they want a transparent process of how we would propose a class at Star Route Farms,” Stone said. “What I’ve heard from the provost is that his office is in charge of [this], but also they don’t have capacity for all that.”

The provost’s office “had conducted a search last spring for a new vice provost position that would have included, among other things, responsibility for academic programming at the farm,” Heller said in an email follow-up on Sept. 27. “But the search resulted in no hire.”

Dive deeper by listening to FogPod, the Foghorn’s podcast released on Thursdays at 6:30 p.m. This week’s episode features the author of this story, FogPod co-host Miles Herman, who explains how this story came to be. 


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