- Author: Saoimanu Sope
Desert REC program has reached more than 168,000 people thanks to broad community support
“Oohs” and “aahs” fill the classroom as Stacey Amparano, Farm Smart program manager at the Desert Research and Extension Center in Holtville, yanks an ear of corn off a stalk. Holding it high in the air, she begins shucking the corn to reveal a bright yellow color.
“It's corn!” yells a member of the audience. Amparano demonstrates how to shuck and shell corn to a group of local kindergarteners, all while explaining its many uses.
Farm Smart, an outreach program focused on agricultural literacy, has educated more than 168,000 people in the Imperial Valley and surrounding areas since its inception in 2001. The program is an integral part of Desert REC – one of nine centers operated across the state by University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources – and serves K-12 students and their families.
Nestled in the southeastern corner of the state, Imperial Valley is home to over 500,000 acres of farmable land and more than 65 crops, making it an ideal place to teach youth about the valley's significant contribution to California, the U.S., and the world.
“Farm Smart is a reminder to kids that they come from a place that feeds most of the country throughout the year. It's something to be proud of,” said Amparano.
While the younger participants might not grasp the full impact of Farm Smart right away, the community sure does. More than 60% of the program's funding comes from contributions from the community, including local organizations, institutions and families.
“I don't think many people realize that a majority of Farm Smart is funded by the community. It makes this program even more special, that our own community believes in our impact and wants us to keep going,” Amparano said.
For example, the Imperial Irrigation District has supported and funded the program since it began, donating $107,500 in 2022 alone.
“This program has created an awareness of how food is grown, harvested and put on our table,” said Norma Galindo, former IID board director. “It invites participation from the elementary through high school grades and serves as a hands-on experience that is priceless.”
During her tenure, Galindo championed the increase of IID's monetary allocation to Farm Smart and requested that older people be allowed to participate in the same manner as the students. This created an opportunity for Farm Smart to engage a segment of the population that is often overlooked. Like the youngsters, retirees escaping cold weather in northern states can learn about irrigation and soils and pick vegetables to take home.
Valeria Landeros, a community education specialist at Desert REC, grew up in the Imperial Valley and remembers attending a Farm Smart field trip in elementary school. “I remember learning how to milk a cow and make butter and thinking that we traveled somewhere far out of town,” she said.
“Most people who grow up in Imperial Valley and the greater area know nothing about the fields that surround us,” said Clarissa Abarca, another community education specialist at Desert REC.
Similar to Landeros, Abarca participated in Farm Smart field trips during elementary to high school and can attest to the program's ability to modify its content and suit the interest of all ages. As an educator, Abarca gets most excited about instilling an appreciation for agriculture and introducing students to the numerous careers in the sector.
Galindo said that she expects that the IID Board will continue to support this program with crucial funds.
“Any other [county] that emulates this type of program stands to benefit from it, if and when it is done on a long-term and consistent basis. Teaching the city folks about farming is a process, not
an event,” said Galindo.
Farm Smart was selected as a recipient of the California State Future Farmers of America Distinguished Service Award and will be recognized at the upcoming State FFA Conference in March.
To learn more about Farm Smart visit https://drec.ucanr.edu/Farm_Smart/.
- Author: Saoimanu Sope
Before Brent Flory, 22, started bagging fruits and vegetables at his local Stater Bros. Market, he picked them at the University of California South Coast Research and Extension Center in Irvine.
In partnership with Saddleback Unified School District's Esperanza Education Center, an adult transition program that provides independent living and life skills training for students with disabilities, South Coast REC hosts students on its 200 acres of land and introduces them to careers in agriculture.
Flory recalls picking avocados as one of his favorite moments from the program at South Coast, one of nine RECs across California operated by UC Agriculture and Natural Resources. “I picked a huge avocado and got to bring it home. It was the size of a medium pumpkin,” he shared.
Field work doesn't warrant business attire, but Flory said that working at South Coast REC taught him the importance of dressing appropriately for work. In this case, it meant pants, closed-toe shoes, a shirt with sleeves, and sunscreen or a hat if working in the sun.
While program managers hope that participating students would pursue a career in agriculture, South Coast REC is more concerned about providing opportunities for students to gain real work experience in a unique setting.
“This is the first time I have had the opportunity for my students to work at a job site in the agricultural field. We never really thought of the agricultural industry as an option for our students,” said Esperanza's education specialist, Michael Seyler.
Esperanza's partnership with South Coast REC began in October 2019. Since then, nine participants have been assigned to work at the research center where they help create seedlings, plant and harvest crops, and learn plant management.
Ray Bueche, Adult Transition Program coordinator and Career Start administrator at Esperanza, is proud of the creative energy it took to develop the program and unite partners, crediting Jason Suppes, South Coast REC's community education specialist. “Working with Jason and UC ANR has inspired me to continue to reach for unique partnerships in this field and elsewhere,” Bueche said.
Dylan Shelden, 19, another past participant, said that the program revealed how important it is for him to choose a career that makes him feel happy and independent. “You are responsible for yourself,” he said. “So, don't quit on the first try.”
Shelden currently works at Party City as a store organizer. Even though he prefers working indoors, Shelden described working with plants and being outdoors as refreshing. “Working in agriculture makes me feel good,” he said.
When asked what advice he would give incoming students, Shelden said: “Be kind, mindful, and thoughtful to others.”
“Things are constantly changing at the farm and follow seasonal patterns. Students get to work with different types of produce depending on the season. So many of my students only thought about jobs in retail or food services industries,” said Seyler. “This has opened their eyes to other possibilities.”
The soft skills learned while working at South Coast REC has helped other students secure paid competitive employment during or following the program. It has also inspired program staff like Bueche and Seyler to consider other unique opportunities for their students to connect the skills they have learned on the farm to other types of jobs.
To learn more about the Adult Transition Program at Esperanza Education Center, visit: https://www.svusd.org/schools/alternative-schools/esperanza/about/why-esperanza
- Author: Mike Hsu
Partnership with Esperanza Education Center provides blueprint for other adult transition programs
For students at Esperanza Education Center, an adult transition program serving students with disabilities in south Orange County, there was something deeply satisfying about handpicking 2,000 pounds of avocados.
“There's a tangible, visual element where you're like, ‘Wow, I did that – I did it, I can see it, I can feel it in my bones and my muscles,'” said Ray Bueche, principal of the school in Mission Viejo, within the Saddleback Valley Unified School District. “There's a real sense of accomplishment that you're seeing in some of these students.”
Ranging in age from 18 to 22, the students are in an adult education program that helps advance their independent living skills and prepare them for meaningful work and careers. They are able to experience the thrill of the harvest – and a variety of other farming activities – through the school's innovative partnership with UC South Coast Research and Extension Center, a UC Agriculture and Natural Resources facility that supports researchers and delivers outreach and education programs.
Given UC ANR's emphasis on workforce development, Jason Suppes, a community education specialist at South Coast REC, contacted Bueche in 2019 about a potential collaboration. While Esperanza has many partnerships with retail stores and nonprofits that give students invaluable work experiences, none of them offer the farm environment that South Coast REC could provide.
“Part of developing [our students] is getting a wide range of opportunities in a variety of vocational areas,” Bueche explained. “Agriculture is one that's very hard for us to find.”
Program ‘wildly successful' from beginning
Unlike other job sites that bring the students in less frequently, South Coast REC committed to hosting the young people every week for three hours (COVID-19 measures permitting), with Suppes and colleague Tammy Majcherek leading them in planting, weeding, maintenance, harvesting and more.
“We can provide opportunities for students to learn skills that could help them potentially find employment in a garden center, in a nursery, at landscapers,” Suppes said. “The program was wildly successful out of the gate.”
Mike Seyler, an Esperanza teacher who accompanies the students to South Coast REC, has seen firsthand the positive impacts of the partnership. He said one student – who at first balked at the idea of being outside, getting dirty and performing physical labor – eventually grew to like the work and took great pride in pulling carrots from the ground and sharing them with his family.
“To physically actually ‘see' the work you did – they don't always get to do that,” Seyler said. “It was cool to see someone, who didn't necessarily like being outdoors, really enjoy it now.”
The change of pace – and place – was especially beneficial for one young woman at Esperanza. Bueche said the nature of the work and the setting helped the student grow socially, as she relished the teamwork and camaraderie needed to accomplish their goals on the farm.
“We really saw a different person come out through her experiences there – she felt more self-confident; she was more personable with people; she was talking more,” said Bueche, who added that she has leveraged the skills she gained into a paid work-based learning experience with a local retailer.
Students bring produce to school, community
All students benefit from Esperanza's partnership with South Coast REC, as surplus produce from the center's fields is donated to make healthy school lunches. In addition, students use REC-grown fruits and vegetables at their monthly pop-up restaurant, where they hone skills in preparing and serving a three-course meal.
Their peers, who harvested the produce, derive immense satisfaction from seeing the fruits of their labor go directly to the school.
“They're able to enjoy eating the stuff that they're working for,” Seyler said. “And then they see everyone else enjoying it, and I think that really translates well for these guys.”
The students also played a prominent role in an avocado sale last summer, for which they picked 2,000 pounds of produce, bagged the fruit in 10-pound bags and then distributed preorders to the public from a stand at South Coast REC. Proceeds from the event were used to purchase farm tools, shirts and other gear.
“It was an incredible success – everyone loved the avocados,” Bueche said. “The students loved it; the parents came out; community members supported it.”
Those successes illustrate the power of a strong partnership; the South Coast REC team, in fact, received the school's “Community Partner of the Year” Award for 2020-21, for persevering through the pandemic to deliver the beneficial programs for students.
Over the last two years, Suppes and Bueche – through a lot of creativity and some trial and error – have sketched a roadmap for growing productive relationships between similar organizations and adult transition programs. And after presenting those results to colleagues, other local school districts and nonprofits such as Goodwill and My Day Counts have contacted South Coast REC to provide similar experiences for community members./h3>/h3>/h2>
- Author: Mike Hsu
When Laura Snell first came to the far northeastern corner of California, she was amazed to find that the Board of Supervisors in Modoc County – where cows outnumber people by a ratio of 13 to 1 – was composed almost entirely of women.
Snell, who arrived in the high desert town of Alturas in 2015 as the University of California Cooperative Extension livestock and natural resources advisor, said she now has a theory as to why.
“It's a great example of the rural and agricultural lifestyle we have here where women get involved in everything from civic organizations to local government,” she said. “In a lot of ways, there isn't a glass ceiling in an area where everyone is needed and most people are wearing multiple hats to keep the community going.”
Snell has worn the “county director” hat for UCCE in Modoc County since 2017, bringing a range of UC Agriculture and Natural Resources programs to local communities. In the subsequent years, she has established herself as one of the region's most prominent and respected voices.
“Laura is a strong leader, an excellent communicator, and extremely knowledgeable in the fields of wild horses, groundwater, livestock and grazing – among many other topics,” said Geri Byrne, vice chair of Modoc County's Board of Supervisors (which is presently 75% female).
Snell's broad base of knowledge – as well as her bachelor's in water science and master's in agronomy, both from the University of Nebraska – have served her well in her dream job in a “one-advisor” county.
“This is what I always wanted to do – know a little bit about a lot of things and be the person who connected people with what they needed, connecting them with information, connecting them with different experts,” Snell explained.
One of her most recent accomplishments is launching UC Master Food Preserver classes in Modoc County this year. About 130 people – in a county of 9,000 – have been served by this UC ANR program, and four are on the cusp of graduating as Modoc's inaugural class of certified Master Food Preservers. The vast majority of program participants, Snell notes, have been women.
“They're not only preserving for their own families; they're also using these tools and harvesting things from their gardens and then having a value-added product to sell at the farmers market and our local food hub,” said Snell, citing one participant who learned how to make and sell celery salt.
The contributions of women to the local economy, county leadership and organizations such as the Modoc County Cattlewomen's group continue to inspire Snell in her work – and in nurturing the next generation of leaders.
An avid participant in 4-H growing up in Story County, Iowa, Snell said one of the most fulfilling aspects of her job is mentoring the interns who come through her office, and presenting them with opportunities to learn and grow in their careers.
It was a personal connection that brought Snell to Modoc. A former Bureau of Land Management director in the county, who happened to be the father of her college friend, encouraged Snell to apply for the advisor position. So she flew from Nebraska to Reno and then made the three-hour drive north for the interview.
“I loved it; I immediately loved it,” Snell recalled. “I called my parents that night and said, ‘If they offer me this job, I'm staying.' This is it – this is what I've always really wanted to do, but not only that: this is the kind of community I've always wanted to live in.”
Snell – along with her canine companion, an Airedale-German Shepherd-Rottweiler mix named Zuri – have become an essential part of the fabric of Modoc County. She has provided guidance on everything from managing wild horses on the Devil's Garden Plateau to optimizing agritourism operations for greater profitability to improving the livelihoods of farmers and ranchers by alleviating regulatory burdens.
“Working in this county and for this county, for the people here, that's what fills my cup,” she said. “That's what is most satisfying about this work.”
And the county, in turn, has been appreciative of Snell's wide-ranging expertise and unflappable demeanor. According to Supervisor Byrne, Snell has been instrumental in taking on complex issues such as wild horses and the Big Valley Groundwater Sustainability Plan – four years in the making and greatly enhanced by Snell's background in water and her passion for bringing science to the people.
“Laura has a ready smile and manages to stay calm in the face of adversity,” Byrne said. “Modoc is very blessed to have such an articulate, knowledgeable, hard-working and personable director.”
- Author: Rachael Callahan
- Author: Cooper Limon
The COVID-19 pandemic hit farmers hard. Supply chains were disrupted and even non-traditional agritourism revenue streams such as hay mazes and on-farm events had to be canceled due to shelter-in-place mandates.
On the other hand, demand for local farm products skyrocketed, and thus many farmers and ranchers needed a quick pivot strategy and a set of new skills.
UC Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (SAREP) was well-positioned to support this shift toward direct sales, pulling in trusted community partners and experienced farmers and ranchers to put together a comprehensive webinar series, “Agritourism and Direct Sales: Best Practices in COVID Times and Beyond”.
Funded by a USDA Farmers Market Promotion Program (FMPP) grant, the webinar series is part of a three-year project, Strengthening California Local Food Networks with Agritourism and Direct Sales, which provides trainings and technical assistance to farmers and ranchers on how to diversify their revenue streams.
The strength of the series, which includes eight webinars that were recorded earlier this year and are available online, lies in the collaborations among the UC SAREP Agritourism Program, UCCE, community groups, and farmers and ranchers.
The series features a range of speakers, including representatives from community organizations, technical experts, academic researchers, and farmers – all coming together to build resilience and adaptability for small-farming operations and the agritourism industry across California during the pandemic and after.
“It's great to collaborate with other organizations and regions, to learn from each other and to broaden our networks, as we are all working to create more resilient and sustainable food systems,” said Carmen Snyder, executive director of Sonoma County Farm Trails, one of the nonprofit partners on this project.
And because of those strong partnerships, the webinar topics reflected the on-the-ground needs facing agricultural producers.
“COVID initially dramatically affected farmers' restaurant contracts, with many losing more than 80% of their accounts overnight,” Snyder said. “CSAs [Community Supported Agriculture], on the other hand, couldn't keep up with the demand, and all of our CSA members were full and had wait lists for the first time ever. Producers pivoted by creating more online stores, including pick-up and delivery options. It was a challenge for them to navigate the new technology and platforms.”
The “Online Sales Options and Methods” webinar, a partnership with the Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF), provided an overview of several e-commerce marketing and online sales strategies that farmers can implement to diversify their revenue pathways and reach new customers. CAFF stressed the importance of farmers enhancing their resiliency through e-commerce.
The webinar also featured Ciara Shapiro, the owner of AM Ranch in Penn Valley, who shared her experience with online marketing and how it helped her and her husband survive the pandemic when the restaurants and farmers markets they sold to shut down. This personal and informative webinar demonstrated the effectiveness of online sales and marketing, while highlighting available resources from groups like CAFF.
The “Safe, Healthy and Successful Farm Stands” webinar was aimed at farms of all sizes and organizations that operate or advise agricultural operations using farm stands as a form of revenue. The webinar provided an outline of the rules and regulations that farm stand operators needed to follow during COVID – as well as during business-as-usual times.
Both farmers saw an increase in farm stand business during the pandemic, which Yagi attributed to the “traffic storm of people” who attended their annual plant sale fundraiser and came to participate in new farm outdoor activities and volunteer opportunities. Yagi also noted the growing number of low-income individuals who were unable to access fresh produce during the pandemic.
The speakers' shared experiences running successful farm stands gave audience members tangible examples and real-time information on how to incorporate farm stands into their businesses.
Carmen Snyder of Sonoma County Farm Trails, which helped circulate the recorded webinars to their network of farmers and ranchers, remarked: “These webinars were extremely helpful for local producers, to get clarity on best pandemic practices during these challenging times and to learn how other producers are adapting and navigating the circumstances.”