Exploring the Plant Materials Center

FARMS Leadership | Sacramento Valley | November 9, 2021

Location of Field Day:
NRCS Plant Materials Center – Lockeford, CA

Field Day Host and Mentors:
National Resource Conservation Service
Plant Materials Center – Matthew Bronson, Margaret Smither-Kopperl, Shawn Vue

Theme:
Interaction of Conservation and Agriculture

Our San Joaquin FARMS Leadership crew spent their second field day at the NRCS Plant Materials Center in Lockeford, where staff work to test plant species related to California conservation concerns. Students explored how the PMC conducts research on cover crops and pollinator species and then works directly with agricultural workers to help implement practices that maximize soil health and native wildlife on farm land.

During a breakfast of yogurt, granola, Asian pears and bananas, students were formally introduced to FARMS Student Leadership Roles. These are 4 different roles (Question Master, Nutrition Educators, Waste Management Warriors, and Partner Experts–see attached photo for a full description of each leadership role!) that are assigned to a new set of students each field day in order to help them practice the hard but oh so necessary leadership skills of decision-making, public speaking, direct communication, self-reflection, and research. Afterwards, our very first Question Master of the year kicked off our opening circle by choosing and posing the reflection question to the group “What is your top priority over the next 6 months?” Students had some incredible answers, like learning more about nutritious foods and how they impact bodies and becoming fluent in Russian!

Next we were joined by Margaret the PMC’s Manager, Matthew the Farm Manager, and Shawn the coordinator of all things PMC. Each shared about the mission of the PMC, their individual backgrounds and career journeys, and their individual roles at the PMC. Matthew then led us on a tour of the PMC facilities starting with the PMC’s shop, seed cleaning and storing facilities, laboratory, machinery storage shed, and lath house. Then we all hopped into a vehicle for a driving tour of the PMC’s farm land. Margaret led us across one field containing an experimental plot of cover crops, in which students feasted on sunflower seeds plucked directly from sunflower heads. Many of them twisted off the heads packed with seeds to plant their own sunflower patches at home.

During lunch, our Nutrition Educators went above and beyond to gather some background research on three fresh foods we were chowing on in our lunch dishes: squash, spinach and basil. After they gathered their information and eloquently presented the nutritional benefits of each food item to their peers, we prepared for our afternoon venture: planting an educational native pollinator garden for future generations of students to enjoy. Matthew briefed students on the process beginning to end including measuring and staking out the plots, cutting and securing down weed paper, and planting seedlings into the holes within the paper.

The sun escaped cloud cover just in time for us to head down to our plot and students set right to work. After some problem-solving and utilization of geometry class skills to ensure plot angles were correct, students measured and laid weed paper and planted away. Along the way, students discovered plenty of new worm, beetle and spider friends and by the end of the afternoon, they had established a garden with over 150 new plants!

Closing the day with our reflection circle, students had plenty to appreciate about the day. Many loved getting their hands dirty while planting fresh green life, others remembered climbing up into tractors and seed-distributing machines, and others most enjoyed traipsing through the PMC fields and learning about their cover crops. One student who has long wanted to go into the medical field shared that the last two field days have her re-thinking her career plan; now she’d like to find a professional path that combines medicine with agriculture and conservation efforts. Music to any FARMS Leadership Coordinator’s ears!

Farm to Fork Olive Oil

FARMS Leadership | Sacramento Valley | October 26, 2021

Location of Field Day:
Cobram Estate – Woodland, CA

Field Day Host and Mentors:
Cobram Estate – Ciriaco Chavez and Mikayla Gnoss

Theme:
Olive Oil & Sustainable Ag

The Sacramento Valley FARMS Leadership crew kicked off our first field day of the season at Cobram Estate, a leading CA producer of olive oil. After students chowed down some healthy breakfast burritos, we hopped back in our vehicles to venture out to two of Cobram’s olive tree orchards. Strolling through the orchards with Cobram’s Ciraco Chavez and Mikayla Gnoss, we learned all about olive varieties, Cobram’s unique style of planting olive trees (quite different from the iconic olive tree orchards you might see across Europe), and Cobram’s efforts at sustainable growing practices (including a state of the art drip irrigation system and equipment that tracks daily moisture levels to determine the exact amount of water needed by trees, no more, no less. Before heading back, students each harvested olives by hand.

From the orchards, we moved into some mill exploration. Ciriaco and Mikayla led us through olive oil processing from beginning to end: 1) trucks dump loads of harvested olives into an underground collector, 2) olives travel upward again on automated belts which transport them through high-tech machinery that separates good from bad olives, 3) olives are crushed and sent through several centrifuges that separate out the oil, 4) oil is stored in massive vats that can hold up to tens of thousands of gallons, and finally 5) oil is bottled and labeled by automated machines. Our last stop on the tour was Modern Olives: an independent olive oil research laboratory housed within Cobram Estate. We discussed ag careers at every stop, from orchard management to engineering and building mill machinery to laboratory research within Modern Olives.

After students sat down for a fantastic olive oil tasting led by Modern Olive’s head researcher, students made their own olive oil-based (using Cobram Estate oil of course!) salad dressings which they enjoyed on salads for lunch. We ended the day with the olives the students harvested that morning: utilizing observation skills, math skills, and scales, students each calculated the average ripeness level of each tree they harvested from. As Cobram approaches their harvest season, our partners were happy to have our students do some of their olive sampling for them!

Native Love at Vino Farms

FARMS Leadership | San Joaquin | October 22, 2021

Location of Field Day:
Lodi, CA

Field Day Host:
Vino Farms – Chris Storm & Viticulture Team

Theme:
Sustainable Viticulture & Native Conservation

Our San Joaquin FARMS Leadership crew ventured out to Vino Farms for a day of sustainable viticulture and native conservation efforts. With a rather soggy start to the day, students embraced the rain whole-heartedly during an introduction to Vino Farms from Viticulturist Chris Storm and his team. We then ventured down to one of Vino’s biodynamic sustainable growing blocks seated right next to a 28 acre habitat restoration site (installed by a group of high school students in CLBL’s SLEWS Program 12 years ago!). With healthy breakfast burritos in hand, students first spent time on some self-reflection and community connections, creatively answering the questions ‘Where do you come from?, Where are you now?, and Where are you going?’ through collage art.

As the sun finally began to grace us with its presence, we dove into a day of native conservation efforts. Though Chris Storm gave the crew some wonderful background on the current plight of the Monarch Butterfly, our LHA students were no strangers to this wide-spread issue. After discussing how dwindling milkweed populations are contributing to the decline of the Monarch, students, partners and teachers traversed Vino’s habitat restoration site spreading 2 pounds of milkweed seed in the hopes to help re-establish the local Monarch population (shout out to Xerces Society and NRCS Plant Materials Center for donating the milkweed seed!).

After giving some love to the butterflies, we shifted our focus to native bee populations. Chris led us in a discussion of the importance of all native bees for their crucial pollination efforts. Our students were well aware that pollinators are essential for ⅓ of the world’s crop production. So in order to boost native bee populations, students spent some time building bee blocks from scratch. Let me tell you, they were power drill masters! After lunch down by the creek with watermelon grown by Center for Land-Based Learning Incubator Farmers, students and partners set to work installing the bee blocks on trees throughout the restoration site.

Our final activity of the day was a smelly surprise for us all: owl pellets collected from Vino Farms’ many owl boxes. Students were enthralled to find entire mouse skulls buried within the pellets!

We finished out our day with a closing circle during which everyone reflected on their favorite parts of the day: some students marveled at the sustainability efforts Vino takes (a massive solar installation, free-ranging sheep acting as lawnmowers, managing pests by introducing native insects, and precise drip irrigation systems) while other students loved drawing the connections between their observations at Vino and the environmental systems they’ve learned about in their Environmental Science class. Everyone left counting down the days to our next field day!