Planting the seed

K-12 educators implement new projects to encourage interest in agriculture

Left to right: Kyler Storey, Kaitlyn Miller and Makenzie Hoffman, students in Janet Ashley’s third-grade classroom at Helen Wilcox Elementary School hold chicks they studied, cared for and hatched using an incubator.

Left to right: Kyler Storey, Kaitlyn Miller and Makenzie Hoffman, students in Janet Ashley’s third-grade classroom at Helen Wilcox Elementary School hold chicks they studied, cared for and hatched using an incubator.

Photo courtesy of Ryan Cleland

McManus Elementary School teacher Paige Bush embarked on an exciting project with her second-grade students last year: helping them start their own garden.

They cultivated a variety of crops, including lettuce, chard, spinach, broccoli, cilantro, peas, beans and strawberries. Then, they set up a market outside of their classroom and asked for donations. The kids and other schoolchildren ate some of the produce and took some home to their families.

“They got to see [the process] from farm to fork, and how much patience and care it takes throughout the month to actually be able to harvest,” Bush said.

The bounty didn’t stop there: The kids were able to use the money raised from the market to go on field trips—a local farmers’ market, a walnut orchard and a pumpkin patch.

Bush, who grew up on a farm and has a degree in agricultural business, said she was inspired to create such a program because she believes it is important for young students to have educational opportunities within that sector of the economy. Most of her students live in the suburbs of Chico, and their families don’t grow their own food.

“I saw the interest and the passion [for agriculture] in some of my students, which is the whole reason I’m doing it,” she said. “You want to expose them to: How does food get on your plate? Where does chocolate milk come from? It’s not from brown cows.”

The role schools and programs like Future Farmers of America (FFA) and 4-H play has arguably become more important as the average age of the American farmer has continued to increase, reaching approximately 58 in 2017, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s census. To address this trend, local educators have tasked themselves with trying to generate interest in the field by providing enrichment opportunities for children.

Butte County 4-H’s latest endeavor is a good example. The local chapter has been around for more than 100 years and provides programming to more than 500 youths ages 5 to 19.

Ryan Cleland, the local program representative, says he always is focused on increasing student participation. During the last school year, he instituted a program that offers a ready-made curriculum—and has had success with other 4-H chapters—to teachers this area. For example, this spring, third-grade students at Helen Wilcox Elementary in Oroville used a high-tech incubator to study chicken embryo development, from fertilization to hatching.

Paige Bush’s second-grade students at McManus Elementary School work in the garden they established this past school year.

Photo courtesy of Paige Bush

It was a hit: 75 students enrolled, and they had a 95 percent success rate, Cleland told the CN&R. At the end of the project, they created tri-fold boards and shared what they’d learned. He’s purchasing two more incubators for classrooms next year, and plans on developing more ready-made curricula for teachers in ag and other educational fields.

“It is very much in line with 4-H’s greater vision of wanting youth to learn through doing and getting their hands on a project—not just learning the theory of it, but learning it in practice,” he said.

Matt Reed, a Gridley High School teacher and Gridley FFA Chapter adviser, says ag education in his community generates a lot of interest. The programs are at capacity every year, with about 285 students enrolled and three advisers who teach ag mechanics, horticulture and animal science pathways. He says one of the focuses is on backyard production: Not everybody can afford to buy big plots of land, “so they have to make do with the half-acre they have, and we have to teach them how to grow crops and raise livestock [on that].”

Many students come from low-income families that cannot afford to participate in traditional livestock-raising programs. In those instances, Reed and his colleagues point them to grant, scholarship and loan opportunities with the National FFA Organization and local groups like the Butte County Cattlemen’s and Cattlewomen’s associations, or encourage them to broaden the scope of projects they’re interested in undertaking. For example, Reed has one student help him work at the school greenhouse each year.

Private businesses also are providing resources for urban students to take an interest in agriculture. Take, for instance, M&T Ranch in southwest Chico, which spans more than 8,000 acres and produces almonds, prunes and walnuts. It has provided high-schoolers with barn space and paid summer internships for decades.

Les Heringer, who has managed the ranch since the mid-’80s, says the barn holds up to a dozen animals each year: Typically the space goes to hogs, but they’ve also taken in goats and sheep. These spots are specifically reserved for students who otherwise would have nowhere to house and raise livestock for the Silver Dollar Fair.

“Most of the students who are going into agriculture now were not raised on farms,” Heringer said. “We’re hoping the help we’re giving them will help get them involved in agriculture in the future.”

Agriculture is Butte County’s largest economic driver. Statewide, more than a third of the country’s vegetables and two-thirds of the country’s fruits and nuts are grown in California, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

“For all the students, it helps them understand what it takes to farm, what it takes to feed not only people in this country but [also] worldwide,” Heringer said. “California ships to markets all over the world.”

Heringer says agriculture isn’t something people have to be born into to be successful in the industry. He recruited a Chico High welding student several years ago who ended up working at M&T Ranch the summer after he graduated. He stayed on and now plays a key role, managing the herbicide and weed spray programs and supervising four employees.

“I think it’s critically important for the agricultural community to reach out to the educational program[s] to get students involved … because this is where it happens, out here. And what we’re trying to do is give students a real world experience.”