Sowing and growing

“Outdoor classroom” gives students a glimpse into real-life farming

Farm manager (and Chico High student) Claudia Randall inspects some crops alongside 9-year-old Gavin Cockrell. Randall didn’t have an interest in farming until she became heavily involved with the project, which has made her life more meaningful, she said.

Farm manager (and Chico High student) Claudia Randall inspects some crops alongside 9-year-old Gavin Cockrell. Randall didn’t have an interest in farming until she became heavily involved with the project, which has made her life more meaningful, she said.

Photo By Stacey Kennelly

Head to the pumpkin patch:
Chico High FFA’s Henshaw Farms’ pumpkin patch is located on the corner of Guynn and Henshaw Avenues, just off of W. East Avenue, and will be open every Wednesday in October from 2-5:30 p.m., and on weekends in October from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Sunflowers, zinnias, gourds, squash and beans are also available, as well as games, face painting and an antique-tractor exhibit.

A few years ago, Claudia Randall, a 17-year-old Chico High School senior who likes to draw, thought she wanted to be a fashion designer. Today, she can’t imagine a future without farming.

“Agriculture really opened things up for me. It makes you feel like you have a place in the world—like there’s something that you were meant to do,” said the polite, smiley redhead as she stood in the sun on one of the summer’s last hot afternoons.

She didn’t have an interest in farming until she took an ag class to fill a science requirement last year and was approached by Quinn Mendez, a Chico High agriculture teacher, and was asked to help plant zinnias at a new student-run farming project on Henshaw Avenue. It would be the project’s first official round of crops.

“But when we got out here, instead of having certain sections to take care of ourselves, we all started to take care of it together,” said Randall, referring to her fellow classmates.

Today, it’s hard to believe teenagers are responsible for what’s become of the farm. Dozens of neatly-planted rows of crops thrive in the sunlight, showcasing a rainbow of green that can only be found in nature. Pumpkins, squash and gourds in different shapes, sizes, colors and textures bask in the heat, and Randall, who is now the farm’s manager, played with a garden hoe while she spoke about how the project has changed her life.

“I get told all the time by farmers that this is such rich soil and that I’m lucky to have this,” said the Chico native. “They say, ‘Do you know what you’re standing on? This is Chico loam right here.’ And I feel fortunate.”

The roots of the Chico High farming project on Henshaw Avenue date back to 2008, when a few members of the CUSD school board and Chico Friends of Ag—a group of local farmers who help keep the ag program at Chico High in full swing—began to take notice of the more than 10 acres of CUSD-owned land that was going to waste. For years, the acreage sat unused—originally slated for the site of a new high school—collecting weeds and debris, and at one point, even became a dumping ground for neighbors.

The lot next door, a large area of land that was once intended as a park and is owned by the Chico Area Recreation District, still looks that way. A rusty sign pokes above chin-high grasses and brush promising a future “Henshaw Park” that has yet to be realized.

Gourds, pumpkins and beans are a few of the crops at the student-run farming project.

Photo By Stacey Kennelly

However, after a lot of sweat and generosity from the community, the CUSD-owned land was renewed. It took help from people from all corners of the community—including those who donated seeds, irrigation pipes and pollinating bees—but especially the work of Friends of Ag members, who spent countless hours volunteering their labor, expertise and equipment to get the lot cleaned up. By fall 2008, a 10-acre area was ready for planting.

Two students who have since graduated took it upon themselves to do a trial run with wheat—a crop that is low-maintenance—and when spring came, harvest was good.

So, ag teachers Mendez and Sheena Zweigle rounded up a group of students from the agriculture program to volunteer to plant the first official round of crops in June 2009. They also got some help from eighth-graders recruited by Ronnie Cockrell, who was teaching irrigation technology at Chico Junior High at the time (he is now the newest member of Chico High’s ag department).

The students planted pumpkins, gourds, zinnias, cucumber, cantaloupe and watermelon. The cucumber got a mold infection and didn’t survive, but the rest of the crops thrived—especially the pumpkins—as the group of students spent their summer performing back-breaking work and tending to the crops. By harvest time last fall, they had successfully grown hundreds (if not thousands, Zweigle said) of plump, bulbous pumpkins. They sold some at their farm location and found clever ways to make use of the rest, including selling large amounts to stores such as WinCo Foods.

In May, a second round of students (including some who stayed on board from the year before) added three kinds of fall squash, sunflowers, rainbow corn and cranberry beans (similar to pinto beans) to the already thriving crops. Over the summer, some of the most dedicated students woke up as early as 5:30 a.m., seven days a week, to pull weeds and fend off pests.

When that round of crops is harvested this fall, the students will hold multiple pumpkin-patch events for the community that feature affordable pumpkins, games, face-painting and the chance to purchase other crops. There are also plans to host grade-school fieldtrips, where the teens can teach younger kids about farming, Zweigle said.

The “outdoor classroom” the teachers and students have created is unique in the sense that it is on school-owned property and was made possible through the support of local farmers—something that could only happen in Chico, Zweigle said.

“Here, [students] are working with the farmers to prepare the soil. They are watching them do it. Then, they are facing the challenges of caring for crops, and now they’re even getting the chance to incorporate marketing and selling those products,” said Zweigle, referring to the department’s potential plan to package and sell this year’s crop of cranberry beans and squash at local grocery stores.

Mendez, who specializes in plant and soil science, said that while features such as Chico High’s on-campus greenhouses give students a glimpse into the world of growing crops, the ability to witness the process from beginning to end—as well as the challenges that weather, pests and weeds pose—is priceless.

“They’ve read it, or they’ve practiced it on a smaller scale, but they haven’t seen it like they see it out here,” she said.