s
s
Sections
Sections
Subscribe

SANTA ROSA -- Santa Rosa Junior College has brought its culinary arts and agriculture departments under unified leadership, aligning those programs to emphasize for students the sometimes invisible relationship between farming and food.

Dr. Ganesan Srinivasan, who joined the junior college as its new dean of agriculture last year, began an expanded role guiding programs in the school's culinary realm on January 1st.

 In a region known for its deep respect for food and agriculture, Dr. Srinivasan said that the approach has not only enhanced the education of students in each discipline, but also provided additional real-world insight to those looking to start businesses in the specialty foods, beverage and restaurant arena.

"They see what it costs to produce food with locally grown, organic produce," he said. "Here, people value their food. Consumers are willing to pay a premium for quality food and wine."

The convergence is among the latest evolutionary steps for two programs that have drawn significant attention in recent years, spurred by developments like the opening of a new $20 million culinary arts center in January 2012 and a steady stream of award-winning products from the school's 365-acre Shone Farm near Forestville.

[caption id="attachment_74552" align="alignright" width="270"] B. Robert Burdo Culinary Arts Center[/caption]

While the B. Robert Burdo Culinary Arts Center and Shone Farm are significant assets on their own, Dr. Srinivasan said that the existence of both under the umbrella of Santa Rosa Junior College allows for a level of coordinated sophistication that is rare among institutions of higher learning.

"Even large schools don't have the kind of facilities we have," he said.

Under the overlapping departments, students in the agriculture and culinary arts programs have worked closely to offer new products at the culinary arts center's restaurant while finding ways to utilize food waste at Shone Farm, he said.

For the first time, grass-feed beef produced at Shone Farm is now being offered at the culinary center's restaurant. The farm has also provided fresh produce to the facility, a practice that has directly involved students there.

"The students can come to Shone Farm and harvest fresh produce, then serve it as a salad the next day," he said.

While not structured as a profit-making venture, revenue from both the culinary center and products from Shone Farm has been steadily climbing since Dr. Srinivasan first joined as dean of agriculture last year, he said.

In general, sales of Shone Farm products are up approximately 50 percent, he said. That includes sales of wine produced at the farm, which has been available at high-end grocery stores in the region and recently became available at Whole Foods markets in both Santa Rosa and Petaluma. The farm's vineyards and winery produce 300 to 400 cases annually of pinot noir, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc, with the pinot winning a gold medal at the San Francisco Chronicle's 2013 wine competition.

Another Shone Farm item -- olive oil -- has drawn intense demand after garnering a double gold award in professional competition at the Sonoma County Harvest Fair last year. After producing only 15 cases and less than 200 bottles of a three-varietal blend in 2011, Shone farm will create three varieties and 100 cases this year, Dr. Srinivasen said.

The farm's community-supported agriculture produce delivery program has also added customers, with the addition of Agilent's Santa Rosa campus helping to bump customers up from 70 last year to more than 100 today, he said.

The search for profit has provided real-world experience for students, with revenues available for reinvestment into programs and facilities for both agriculture and culinary arts programs.

"We're not increasing revenue for the sake of revenue. Consumers realize that by supporting agriculture, they are supporting students," he said.

Revenue has also increased year-over-year at the Culinary Arts Center which Dr. Srinivasen estimated generated more than $200,000 in sales in 2012 -- its first year in operation. Reservations for the facility's restaurant are frequently required two weeks in advance, and high demand has inspired plans to expand with an outdoor pizza oven in the near future.

With a deeper knowledge of concepts from farming, culinary program graduates are better able to serve a consumer that has grown increasingly savvy towards the origin of their food, said Betsy Fischer, who teaches front house and restaurant operations while managing the school's Culinary Career Center.

"I think knowledge about good food and where it comes from is what conscientious food service employers and restaurant diners are seeking," Ms. Fischer said. "Culinary grads don’t need to have knowledge of 'farming' but an appreciation for the concept of local, organic and delicious."

The success of student-led ventures in agriculture, food and wine production points to a certain cache for the Sonoma brand both inside and outside the county, Dr. Srinivasen said. The region has proven an effective springboard for food and beverage companies that emphasize the relationship between ingredients and products, highlighting the importance of educational efforts to connect the two concepts.

"When you go and ask consumers what they equate Sonoma County with, wine and food are very high," said Tim Zahner, head of marketing at the Sonoma County Tourism Bureau. Increasingly, travelers are expecting that the farm and vineyard will be part of the experience as well, he said.