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‘Grand Pooh-Bah’ of sustainability adds a global touch

4.12.2007

By Lyra Halprin

The well-traveled Tom Tomich holds a box of lettuce at the UC Davis Student Experimental Farm.

How many e-mails does it take to arrange a business card? When your job is as complex as Tom Tomich's, the answer is "plenty."

Tomich, the new head of UC Davis' Agricultural Sustainability Institute and the statewide UC Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program, arrived on campus in January after living in Nairobi, Kenya, for six years as global coordinator of the Partnership for the Tropical Forest Margins at the World Agroforestry Center.

He is also the first W.K. Kellogg Endowed Chair in Sustainable Food Systems at UC Davis, and a professor in both the departments of Human and Community Development, and Environmental Science and Policy. A colleague calls him the "Grand Pooh-Bah" of sustainable agriculture.

"My new job is a complex one, but it is a healthy move for me and my family. I loved my international work, and my family and I love Kenya, but it was time to come back to the U.S., and back to my roots," he said. "I see my new job as a wonderful opportunity to help develop the scientific foundations for sustainability in my home state."

Tomich's roots are on a farm that is now 20 acres in Orangevale, northeast of Sacramento. His father's family came from Sweden and the Dalmatian Coast of Croatia and purchased the land in 1898. At its largest, the farm was 300-plus acres of rice, orchards and a duck club, which helped pay the bills for many years. His parents still live in his maternal grandmother's house on the remaining 20-acre diversified farm, where they raise fruit.

When Tomich arrived at UC Davis to sign the contract for his new job last summer, he brought part of his childhood with him — apricots, peaches, plums and figs from the family farm. And, he brought memories of his undergraduate years at Davis, where he received a bachelor's degree in economics. His doctorate was from Stanford University's Food Research Institute in agricultural production economics, and food consumption economics and human nutrition. From 1984-94, he was an associate at the Harvard Institute for International Development, and at Harvard's J.F. Kennedy School of Government and economics department.

What was your first impression of UC Davis?

The Cal Aggie Band-uh! I was a student at Casa Roble High School in Orangevale in the early 1970s and came to UC Davis with the chemistry team. We came to campus to visit the physics department and see the lasers, but what stuck in my mind was seeing the Band-uh at the Coffee House when it was located at East Hall. I thought, "This is so cool." I was totally hooked.

What's your impression of UC Davis now?

Thirty years later there's much greater diversity in the student body — I was really struck by it and happy to see it. There are still a few people here who I took classes from.

I'm having a good time here now, dealing with all kinds of people. Besides my colleagues on campus, I meet with government officials and regulators in Sacramento, people on commodity boards, environmental activists, and many farmers.

What is the biggest issue in your field right now?

Who is actually going to define what agricultural sustainability really means? If this is a "top-down" process, then I worry it will be so rigid it won't have enough scope for the innovations that are part of the history of California agriculture. Will it be government regulators? Environmentalists? Consumers? "Big-box" retailers? The agricultural sector? Or some combination of all of those? Bringing all those perspectives together is our big challenge. We're in a long-term process in agriculture, moving from specific commodity issues to broader resource issues. In this new world, how do we get funding for science in the public interest?

Do you have any guilty pleasures?

Desserts. The worst of all is cheesecake — straight-ahead cheesecake. Going back to our Southeast Asia roots, my wife and daughters and I like Thai Nakorn restaurant in Davis.

What about hobbies?

I love photography. I really got started when I was in Cairo as a student during my junior year abroad. That's where I met my wife, who was also a student. I took many photos of Islamic architecture. I continued taking photos in the Egyptian desert when I interviewed people for my dissertation research. I've branched out to rain forest landscapes and while living in Kenya, of course to wildlife. I love taking photos of birds — Africa has amazing birds.

Lyra Halprin is a senior public information officer for the UC Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program.


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