Our Farms as Assets in our Wealth Portfolio in Cumberland

My father grew up on a farm and from the time he became a teenager, his goal was figuring out how to get off the farm. He succeeded in that. He became the first person in his family to attain beyond a 4th grade education. My uncle is a farmer and I have always admired the breadth of interdisciplinary knowledge it takes to be a farmer. Plant genetics, plant physiology, meteorology, soil science, and other sciences such as ecology, earth science, biology, chemistry, engineering, and economics are just some of the major areas of knowledge a farmer needs to succeed. While my father ran far away from the farms of Haiti, I am running into the fields of corn, eggplants, jalapenos, and other produce in South Jersey.

This past week, I had the privilege of spending some time with two generations of farmers at Tom Pontano & Son Farms. They own 300 acres of farmland in Vineland. It was the most time that I have ever spent on a farm and one of the most enlightening experiences of my career. I always knew that it takes hard work to be a farmer, but the economics of farming even in the wealthiest country in the world are intricate and often do not favor those responsible for our sustenance. The agriculture business is a complex, extremely regulated, and an expensive enterprise. Needless to say, I walked away with a deep appreciation for my local farmers and a commitment to support them as part of my lifestyle and where my family chooses to shop for fresh produce.

On the professional front, as an institution located in a primarily rural area, Cumberland County College needs to better understand the business, challenges, and opportunities for local farmers. It is at the very core of our mission to serve the community. Farmers today face an array of issues including international competition which affects the prices they are able to command in the produce market, labor shortages, wage regulation, changing and less predictable weather, a strict regulatory environment, and managing the environmental impact of farming are among some of the issues. These challenges, for the most part, are not even related to the actual production of their produce. There, plant breeding, plant physiology, crop rotation, soil fertility, irrigation and drainage, weed control, and insect and pest control—to name a few—are major factors dominating farmers’ time with respect to the actual production of fruits, vegetables, and grains.

Needless to say, I was impressed with my visit. The farms of Cumberland are one of the many natural assets in our collective wealth portfolio. They are also a way of life, the livelihood of many generations of immigrants old and new—from the more established Italians, Jews, and Puerto Ricans to the more recent Mexicans, Guatemalans, and other Central Americans. The academic in me also sees the farms as large field stations for more than just scientific learning and scientific knowledge generation. Our farmers, I learned, develop their breadth of knowledge mostly from field experience. Constant experimentation is a way of life for them, as are constant risk assessment and risk taking. They are constantly evaluating their business model in light of what appears to be always changing external factors.

Thank a farmer today. Buy their fresh local produce. It’s a job that fewer and fewer people want to do. Volunteer at a farm. Give back in whatever small way that you can. Thank you Tom Sr. and Jr. for an incredible experience and great insights.


A Living Legacy of Inclusiveness: Embracing Different Learning Styles and Abilities

Typically when the subject of diversity arises, it is about race and ethnicity.  Given the history of our country and the demographic changes we are undergoing currently, it is not hard to imagine why those two aspects are the most often talked about. In this blog post, I address the subject of diversity of learning styles and embracing students with learning disabilities. Over the last five decades, Cumberland County College has built not just a reputation but a living legacy around serving students with diverse learning needs and abilities with a level of care and excellence that many tell us is unparalleled in the region.

When we think of bullying in schools and students who feel that college is not for them or they are not smart enough or they are different, one of the most vulnerable groups is students with disabilities. Often, they feel conditioned to define success in ways that are different from the prevailing measures like college completion, successful careers, home ownership, and other traditional metrics of success. Often, they are made to feel that they need to settle for something less than—to pursue careers that many not necessarily depend on their intellectual and academic abilities. At Cumberland County College, we believe firmly in the human potential of each and all of our students and we make special efforts to embrace those who are vulnerable and who have been made to believe that there are limitations to their potential to achieve.

Over the last few months, I have been not just impressed but proud to hear of the services that we offer students with learning disabilities. When I hear anecdotes about families that thought that their child could not achieve like their siblings and they come to blossom at Cumberland, I feel a deep sense of pride in our students and alumni with disabilities who are living legacies of our commitment to the unleashing the human potential of every student who crosses our threshold.

When I hear of students who thought that there’s been something “wrong” with them all their lives or who thought that they were “dumb,” and only to find out that they are diagnosed with a learning disability that is not insurmountable, that can be accommodated, that does not shut out the world to them or in any way limit what they can aspire to achieve, I am also proud of our people. When I see our quiet, shy, and reserved director of the office that oversees support to students with learning and physical disabilities get excited and passionate speaking about our students and their families, I can’t help but wonder what I can do to share the gospel.

As we celebrate 50 years of achievements, we will be showcasing all of our students, especially those who had been told or conditioned to think of their lives and potential as being limited only to come and blossom at Cumberland County College. They are the living legacies of our support staff, our faculty, and their families that believed in them now and continue to believe in them.