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Learning to care for the land

Wednesday, December 14th, 2011 | Posted by

Tyler Ross screws together an owl box at Martorana Family Winery in the Dry Creek Valley. (John Burgess / PD)

By DIANA GILBERT / Windsor Correspondent

Tyler Ross, 15, spent a recent school day in an unusual sort of classroom, at Martorana Family Winery in Healdsburg. His assignment for the day?

First, build an owl box, used by wineries to attract the natural predators of a variety of destructive rodents. Later, visit a restoration project at Grape Creek and help introduce plants that aid in bank stabilization.

Tyler and six other students at Windsor Oaks Academy are among a select group of 32 from six county high schools who are enrolled in this year’s Farming and Resource Management for Sustainability (FARMS) program. Put on by the Sonoma County Resource Conservation District, the program’s goal is to “empower and enrich their lives through the environment and through teaching them about sustainable agriculture,” said Susan Haydon, who is the education program manager.

“When we do that, we touch on themes of their own health, their own adulthood and the choices they make,” she said.

We hope to teach them a sense of place. It’s all about caring for the land, and local farms are our classroom and our laboratory.”

Throughout the academic year, students  participate in seven field days, keep notebooks about their activities and do pre- and post-assessments to measure what they’ve learned. The course culminates with two days of presentation at Sonoma County Ag Days.

“I wanted to do this because I’m a hands-on person,” said Tyler. “I prefer being outside to sitting inside a classroom doing nothing.”

Hands-on certainly describes the activities students participate in. In September they picked apples in Sebastopol and used them to make apple juice. At Petaluma’s Bounty Farm, they helped with a natural weed abatement and soil restoration program.

Later in the year they’ll plant native trees and plants at Cresta Ranch near Mark West Springs, learn to spin yarn from animal hair at Windrush Farms in Chileno Valley and taste homemade cheese and yogurt at Triple-C organic dairy near Two Rock.

About half the student body at Windsor Oaks Academy applied for this unique academic program, which counts as an elective and meets state science standards.

“Prior knowledge about agriculture or an interest in pursuing an agricultural career are not factors in the application process. Genuine interest is,” said Haydon.

Tyler’s classmate Kristina Rodriguez, 16, has been pleasantly surprised by the types of things she has gotten to do. “I really enjoyed picking apples and making juice at the apple orchard,” she said. “It tasted a lot better than store-bought juice. It’s so fresh.

“I’ve always liked being in nature but I’ve never done anything like this.”

Windsor Oaks teacher Jeremiah Kahmoson accompanies the students to each of the field day activities and is a strong proponent of FARMS.

“I’m really passionate about the environment,” he said. “‘We all live downstream’ is the motto in my classroom. This is an amazing opportunity to take students into an environment that they’re not used to and give them an experience they haven’t had. What a perfect way to learn by doing.”

He believes that the alternative curriculum is especially beneficial for students from his school.

“A lot of the students we have in alternative education at Windsor Oaks are there because they don’t fit the mold of traditional book- and text- oriented learning styles,” he said.

“It’s important for our students to know that they’re part of this community. They do an amazing job working with the other students, and they’re proud that their school has been part of the FARMS program longer than any other.”

Beyond earning academic credits or even learning something about caring for the environment, Kahmoson sees long-term benefits, too.

“This kind of program is far and away the most experiential, the most out-of-the box, the most effective way of teaching these students about the environment that I’ve seen. Not only do they have the hands-on experience but they also demonstrate what they’ve learned and pass that knowledge on to younger students.”

“They get to see the larger picture. Most teenagers are focused on the here and the now. These guys get the idea that there are things bigger than themselves, and that they can still be a part of it.”

Funding for the program comes from private and public sources including Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District.

As money for electives evaporates in public schools, the Conservation District works to ensure that participating students and schools incur no costs. Haydon said she thinks the cost and energy it takes to put the program together are worth it in the long run, both for the students and the community as a whole.

“This is a time when high school students are making decisions about college and their next steps in life and careers,” she said. “One of our roles is not only to educate them as potential voters but also to connect them with all these types of ag-related jobs and careers that they have never seen. We’re trying to give back to our own Sonoma County youth by giving them an awareness of and appreciation for the working landscape.”

Writer Spotlight

James Lanaras is our Windsor correspondent.
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