Century-old pear trees bathed in the morning sunlight Wednesday as a school bus from Lodi Unified School District pulled up to Steamboat Acres, a family farm in Courtland, a small town located along the Sacramento River in the Delta.
The farm is owned and run by the Neuharth family.
The family has deeply rooted in the California soil for six generations, but traces their origins back to Tennessee, from where they set out to California in search of gold. Instead of finding gold, they found rich farmland. In 1848, Steamboat Acres was established.
Michael Neuharth and his wife, Tara, are the sixth generation to farm the land.
The farm produces a large variety of crops: wheat, tomatoes, cherries, pears, Chardonnay wine grapes, and alfalfa. A 10-acre field is dedicated to pumpkins and gourds for the pumpkin patch. There is also a restaurant, Steamboat Landing, that features all of the different crops they grow in one form or another. In a large barn, a store selling some of their organic and conventionally farmed fruits and vegetables, and products made from them, is housed.
The Neuharths stood near some of the still-producing pear trees planted when the farm was established, as they welcomed the school bus of students from Creekside Elementary School in Stockton.
As part of the Central Valley Farmland Trust’s pilot program Kids to Farm, the fourth- and fifth-grade combination class arrived at the farm to learn more about where their food is grown, and the necessity to protect it, CVFT associate director Melanee Cottrill explained.
“Our mission is to protect California’s farmland,” Cottrill said. “We pave over 50,000 acres of farmland a year. Once it’s gone, it’s gone. You can’t replace it. So we’re trying to protect that land that grows so many unique things that don’t grow anywhere else.”
After the initial greeting, the students took their seats on a long “train car” style wagon attached to a tractor, driven by Michael Neuharth. As he drove down dirt roads, he told the students about the various crops grown on the farm. He explained the importance of bees for pollination and what pruning is, and how you can cross-breed different crops to make new varieties through grafting. They passed rows of tall trees, which he explained were planted as wind breakers, to protect the more delicate crops from the strong gusts. He also explained how crop rotation can help to keep nutrients more abundant in the soil.
After a few minutes they pulled up to a large field littered with pumpkins and gourds in an array of sizes and colors. Tara Neuharth, or “Farmer Tara,” talked about how the annual crop of pumpkins and gourds grows and develops.
“A lot of the things we grow need bees to pollinate,” she said, explaining that bees can travel up to 5 miles from their bee box. “The bees are very important.”
“There is information in the seed that tells it how to grow,” she said, holding up a part of a still -green plant with vibrant yellow flowers. “It’s really interesting that you can have the same type of seed, and end up with 20 different types of pumpkins.”
She explained how each plant has a male flower and a female flower, as she points out the two different flowers.
The male flower is just one flower; the female flower has the baby pumpkin attached to it.
“The bees will come, and take pollen from the male flower to the female flower, and that’s what signals that they are pollinated, and they will start to grow,” she said. “If we lose the bees, we’d lose many things we like to eat.”
Next, Michael finds a spaghetti squash, and with a few quick strikes, he breaks it open so the students can get a look inside. The yellow meat has a string-like quality, with dozens of seeds attached and intertwined within.
“It’s all squishy!” one student said.
Michael tells them that instead of using regular noodles, they can use the flesh of the spaghetti squash as a substitute.
He offered the students some of the fresh squash to smell.
“This smells like regular pumpkin,” he said. “It smells like a pumpkin because it’s from the squash family.”
Cecilia Villanueva was acting as a chaperone on the trip, and was riding on the train car next to her daughter Analina, 10. She said her daughter loves to try new vegetables and other foods.
“If you will cook it, she will eat it,” she said. “She’s really adventurous, and she loves nature.”
The second stop on the field trip took the students to Raley’s in Lodi, CVFT’s partner in the program.
Operation team leader Sean Burgess greeted the students outside the store, before leading them into the organic section of the produce department.
“Why is the organic produce separated?“ he asked. “Because what is put on one product is not put on another,” he continued.
He explained how the store groups all the organic food together to make it easier for the consumer.
Burgess points to a wall naming all the local farms from which the store gets its produce. “We try to get it as local as we possibly can.”
He then asks the students if they know why the store purchases as much local fruit as possible.
“It will last longer,” one student said. “You don’t have to go everywhere.”
“That’s right,” Burgess said. “If I get fruit from Alaska, it’s not going to last as long. Alaska is a day away. So getting it from the farm to the fork, it makes it fresher, make it more delicious, it makes it easier for us to get, it makes it cheaper for you to buy, and we have a huge selection.”