Ag in the Classroom back in action after pandemic break

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By Vicky Boyd

Nicholas Maddocks, who teaches independent studies to fourth and fifth graders at the Tracy Independent Study Charter School, said he signed up for Ag in the Classroom to gain information that he could incorporate into cross-curriculum programs.

“I want to bring more real-world subjects into the classroom and make it more meaningful to the students,” he said. “In fact, I’ve already started doing that with the lesson plan we did on beef. I’m gaining a lot of inspiration on what I can do.”

Tiffany Fuhrmeister, who teaches third grade at Mabel Barron School in Stocton’s Lincoln Unified School District, said her students have participated in AgVenture the past 10 years. But she enrolled in AITC to gain a better understanding of agriculture’s importance in the county.

“I live in Stockton, and I’m a city girl,” she said. “But I want to bring this knowledge to the kids and help them to understand how the food they eat gets to them, who grows it and who picks it.”

After the program’s first day, Fuhrmeister was excited to incorporate the county’s top three crops – almonds, dairy and grapes – into lesson plans.

“Being able to bring a lot of this information together I think will be more meaningful and not as disjointed,” she said. “I want kids to be able to understand.”

The San Joaquin Farm Bureau Foundation for Agricultural Education’s AITC program is designed to educate teachers about the importance of the county’s agricultural industry. It also provides them with lesson plans and loads of free educational materials to help them incorporate ag-related subjects into their classes. Those completing the four-day program earn two continuing education units.

This year, the AITC program was all about quality, not quantity, said SJFB Program Director Kobi Perry. After a three-year pandemic-induced hiatus, the program returned in June but with a smaller number of participants.

Perry blamed the lower turn-out partly on less word-of-mouth promotion from previous attendees. But she said she’s hoping this year’s participants will help spread the word.

“I’d love to see it grow in the future, and I’m confident it will,” Perry said.

In the past, the program was capped at 30 participants. This year, only nine signed up. She said the AITC advisory committee initially considered canceling it because of concerns that tour providers wouldn’t want to speak to fewer teachers. After talking to several, Perry said they told her a smaller group was easier to handle logistically and they would welcome them.

Having a smaller group also allowed the program to conserve on expenses. Rather than rent a large bus  – the cost of which has increased 300% since the 2019 AITC program – they could rent mini-vans for much less.

Increased transportation costs also prompted Perry to revise the itinerary from four days of on-site tours to one day of classroom activities, including speakers, and three days of tours. Based on feedback from past participants as well as teachers on the AITC advisory committee, she changed up the last day.

Instead of a full day of tours, participants now make only three visits, leaving the remainder of the afternoon for lesson planning.

Educating the educators

Michelle Stuyt, who with sister Anastasia make artisan cheeses and are involved in the family owned Stuyt Dairy Cheese in Escalon, said it’s important to educate consumers – including teachers – about their food.

“Every day we hear someone say they picked up a piece of cheese from the grocery store. Your food doesn’t come from a grocery store,” she said. “It comes from farmers, and this is an opportunity for us to share our passion, where we came from and what we have built from the ground up. We’re proud of what we’ve done and what we’ve created.”

Fuhrmeister said she was surprised to learn that small ag businesses such as Stuyts’ were negatively affected by the pandemic much like other small enterprises.

“I’m more aware and have had my eyes opened about how ag businesses are so important,” she said.

Donald Drake, farm manager at San Joaquin Delta College’s Manteca Center, said he believed the more information about agriculture teachers can receive, the better.

“If we have teachers who are educated in ag, they have a better idea and they can teach the youth in the classroom where their food comes from,” he said. “By having young leaders with even just a basic understanding of production ag, it will help the industry because of policies that will be voted on. If you have more educated voters, when those policies or issues come up, they have an understanding of how badly it will affect or how positively it will affect ag.”

Jason Cowen, Corto Olive Co. purchasing and logistics manager, is passionate about educating the public about the characteristics of good olive oil. He himself went through a reeducation when he joined the company from the medical field about a year and a half ago.

“I grew up thinking (olive oil) was just something that you needed to coat the pan,” Cowen told AITC participants. “I didn’t know it could impart such much flavor. I think it’s important to educate everyone who wants to understand what makes good quality olive oil. It’s eye opening to understand what good quality olive oil tastes like and what we can do with it.”

During the nearly three-hour tour of the Corto facility east of Stockton, Cowen and his colleagues walked the teachers through olive groves, fruit production, harvesting, oil extraction and storage. They also discussed the oil’s health benefits from plant-based polyphenols.

Cowen capped it off with an olive oil tasting that allowed AITC participants to experience high quality extra virgin olive oil as well as lower-quality products.

Ellie Valencia, who teaches high school business at Sierra High School in Manteca, said she signed up for AITC because she was looking for ways to make here classes more relevant to students.

“Maybe we could run a little farm in the classroom and grow something and sell it,” she said.

The various AITC tours also provided Valencia with agricultural career opportunities she’d never thought of that she could pass along to her students.