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San Joaquin Farm Bureau Federation teaches students about county’s agricultural roots

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Posted: Saturday, September 16, 2017 9:30 am

When Rachael Fleming enters a classroom with a life-sized mechanical cow dubbed “Natalie” in tow, she asks kids to guess what kind of animal the cow is.

“I’ve gotten dog, I’ve gotten horse,” she said. “I’ve also asked, ‘Where does your milk come from?’ and more often than not they say, ‘The store.’”

Fleming and the San Joaquin Farm Bureau Federation are working to change that.

Agriculture is the county’s top industry, and the farm bureau works to support it. The organization works with the California Legislature to ensure that laws affecting the agriculture industry won’t cause harm to the farmers who grow or raise the nation’s food. They also work to promote San Joaquin County’s crops and products, from grapes, almonds and cherries to milk and honey.

And over the past couple of decades, they’ve been steadily expanding educational programs with the idea that the best way to educate a nation about agriculture is to start while they’re young.

“We want to educate children and consumers about what goes into agriculture, so they can associate it with where their food comes from,” Fleming said.

The San Joaquin Farm Bureau Federation’s educational programs cover plenty of bases, from teacher training, a scholarship program, classroom visits and field trips to showing up at community events to teach visitors just passing through.

For example, Natalie the Cow is currently on loan to the Farmville attraction at the Lodi Grape Festival so that kids and adults can try their hand at milking.

Some of the programs, like Ag in the Classroom teacher training and the scholarship contests, have been around for decades. Others, like the Healthy Snacks program, are brand new.

“What we’d like to do is just get some of our programs out there. Teachers can contact us, and we’re more than happy to go to schools and do these programs,” Fleming said.

Ag Venture, Healthy Snacks and beyond

The farm bureau’s educators work with kids of all ages each year, but they have a couple of programs aimed at letting third- and fourth-graders get a first-hand look at where their food comes from.

Ag Venture isn’t actually run by the farm bureau — it’s a county program for third-graders. But the farm bureau plays a big role in the event.

“We attend with multiple exhibits. I bring our life-sized (mechanical) cow,” Fleming said.

In the past, Ag Venture has visited the Lodi Grape Festival Grounds, bringing live animals like horses and cows as well as hundreds of volunteers who work in the industry. They man dozens of booths teaching students about everything from how crops are grown and where food comes from to ecology and veterinary sciences.

In a series of three events throughout the county, about 11,000 students, along with teachers and chaperones, are introduced to the basics.

Through the same grant that funds Ag Venture, the farm bureau is able to offer the Healthy Snacks program to five classes of fourth-graders each year. This year, the classes will come from Lodi.

The classes are invited out to a working farm, where they learn about specialty crops in the county — almonds, peaches, honey and others. Then, they get to make their own yogurt parfait using those crops.

Last year, students from Stockton were in the program. They headed down to the school farm in Manteca, where they got to see a working almond orchard before making their treats.

“The schools that have done it so far have really enjoyed it,” Fleming said.

But these aren’t the only agricultural education programs aimed at county students. Older classes get individual visits from the farm bureau’s staff, and they tackle slightly more complex topics, like pizza.

The interactive pizza presentation has kids get together to make a cheese, pepperoni or vegetable pizza. Each student in the class gets a note card with information about a worker who helped make that pizza — from dairy farmers to seed engineers to irrigation technicians and mechanics to ag lenders and accountants.

“We want to show students there are more careers (in ag) than just farming,” Fleming said.

The class goes into the details of a dairy, tomato or wheat farm and all of the steps that factor into tomato sauce and pepperoni.

It’s an interactive program, and it can be modified so that it’s engaging for fifth-graders, seniors in high school, and every grade in between.

There’s also the Ag Education wheel. Students can spin it, answer a question about ag, and win a prize. It can be modified so the questions cover, for example, the steps from dairy cow to cheese, or tech-related careers in agriculture. It’s also a great tool at other events.

“I went to the Lodi career day and I took the Ag Education wheel,” Fleming said.

When she asked students if they wanted a career in ag, most said no, she said. When she showed them how the agricultural industry relies on marketing, computer technicians, engineers and other careers, they were surprised and wanted to learn more.

“I think it definitely helps get the word out there,” she said.

Ag in the Classroom: Education for teachers

Every June, the San Joaquin Farm Bureau Federation sponsors a four-day workshop for teachers who want to incorporate agricultural education to their curricula.

The teachers go on a whirlwind tour of the county.

“We usually do an almond operation, a dairy. We do a vineyard. We do the Port of Stockton,” Fleming said. In the past, they’ve toured farms in the Delta, pomegranate orchards, seed research facilities and other locations.

“This year we did aquaculture, too, so we went to a fish farm in Galt,” she said.

The goal is to give teachers an introduction to the county’s agricultural industry, and connect them with local farmers and others.

“That way, we’re educating them about agriculture in this county so they can take it into their classrooms,” Fleming said.

The farm bureau is ready to help teachers work what they learn into their classroom lessons, so they can teach their students about what they’ve learned and still meet curriculum requirements.

Other programs

The San Joaquin Farm Bureau Federation’s educational programs go beyond classroom visits and teacher training.

Each year, they host a poster contest. While the requirements for a winning poster are being updated this year, the basic concept remains the same: Students will be asked to design a poster with a certain theme. The winning student’s classroom will get an ice cream party, where farm bureau educators will teach the kids a little about dairy farming, then use some basic chemistry to make ice cream in a Ziploc bag.

Similar contests tackle poetry and photography.

The bureau also hosts an FFA Blue Jacket program, created in 2012. Local FFA chapters can apply to receive jackets that can be used as “chapter jackets” in their program.

FFA students are required to wear the jackets during competitions and certain other events, and having access to a chapter jacket allows low-income FFA students to participate.

“We work a lot with the FFA and the 4-H,” Fleming said.

The farm bureau also offers a number of scholarships each year.

All of the San Joaquin Farm Bureau Federation’s educational programs are aimed at teaching the public where food comes from.

“Consumers are further and further removed from agriculture,” Fleming said.

Inspiring students to consider careers in agriculture or related industries? Just an added bonus.

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