- Author: Mike Hsu
Commitment of $690,000 supports UC South Coast Research and Extension Center, 4-H programs
During a “GROW Field Day” when 100 high school students enjoyed harvesting and tasting avocados, the Orange County Farm Bureau announced a $690,000 gift to expand University of California-affiliated programs that introduce young people to agricultural careers.
The students from four schools across Southern California participated in the GROW program on May 13 at the UC South Coast Research and Extension Center in Irvine, a UC Agriculture and Natural Resources facility that organizes and hosts these educational programs.
“Part of the mission of Orange County Farm Bureau is to support the development of the next generation of agriculturalists,” said Casey Anderson, executive director of OCFB, in announcing the five-year commitment that will begin in 2023. “Through our partnership with South Coast Research Extension Center and support of Orange County 4-H, we are thrilled to provide opportunities to young people to directly connect with food production and myriad research and career opportunities in agriculture.”
Hundreds of local youth are served every year by Orange County 4-H, a part of a nationwide youth development and education program, administered in California by UC ANR.
“OCFB contributions to our Forever 4-H Endowment will soon provide sustaining funds every year, indefinitely,” said Rita Jakel, Orange County 4-H program coordinator. “And their commitment to our Program Support Fund will help ensure that 4-H will continue to have the capacity to impact the youth of Orange County.”
GROW program introduces youth to agriculture careers
The GROW program, originally conceived by OCFB as a way to make agricultural experiences more accessible to more young people across the region, has engaged over 1,000 students from nine schools – many of them in urban areas where knowledge of agriculture is limited. The program builds on a strong history of collaboration between OCFB and South Coast REC, dating back to the early 2000s.
“UC ANR and South Coast Research and Extension Center are grateful for the trust the Orange County Farm Bureau continues to place in us to not only deliver agricultural education to the people of Orange County, but also to open the eyes of young people to fulfilling careers in agriculture,” said Darren Haver, director of UC South Coast REC.
“To me, it's like a great big outdoor classroom,” said Tammy Majcherek, a South Coast REC community educator specialist who coordinates the GROW program, along with colleague Jason Suppes. “There are so many possibilities of what we can connect to.”
Programs spotlight diversity of agriculture-related fields
Gina Cunningham, a teacher at Westminster High School (part of the Huntington Beach Unified School District), was excited to bring the 20 freshmen in her agricultural biology class to the GROW Day, where they get a glimpse of potential pathways in agriculture that “are not directly farming-related.”
“This gives kids an opportunity to see some things that are available to them that maybe they never have thought of – and there are a lot of things out there that I might not have thought of, either,” said Cunningham, who has degrees in animal science and agricultural education.
Thanks to OCFB's long-term commitment to the program, GROW coordinators Majcherek and Suppes said that in the coming years they would like to bring more students with career aspirations outside of traditional agricultural roles. In particular, they hope to reach out to young people with interests in culinary arts and food service, as well as in technology and engineering, which intersect with food production in the form of drones, robotics and artificial intelligence.
Regardless of their background, however, almost all of the students love harvesting crops from the South Coast REC farm, whether pumpkins, potatoes, or – during the most recent GROW Day – avocados. Majcherek said it's especially rewarding to hear the students talk enthusiastically about older siblings who went to a GROW program and came back with enduring memories – as well as some fresh produce.
“You know it's cool when they're taking selfies with their bounty,” she said.
Community members interested in joining the Orange County Farm Bureau in support of South Coast REC and 4-H programs are encouraged to make a donation on UC ANR's annual Giving Day, which runs from noon to noon on May 19-20./h3>/h3>/h3>
- 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>