- 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