Ask the children who recently toured the McGrath family farm what they liked best, and they would probably still giggle about the chicken that hopped on the back of a goat for a ride around the pen.
Or, maybe the giant orange pumpkin they spotted in the field long before official pumpkin season. Or the "hayride" through the rows of green beans, blue Hubbard squash, corn and six-foot-tall sunflowers.
Roz McGrath, whose ancestors settled in Ventura County in the 1860s, began giving tours of the family farm in Camarillo this summer. The 300-acre spread just off the Ventura Freeway is a fourth-generation farming enterprise, yielding eight or nine kinds of vegetables, which the family sells at its nearby produce stand, Central Market, and to distributors.
Don't expect the traditional farm scene here--farmhouse, barn and scads of animals scurrying around the yard. Here you will find endless fields of vegetables, five goats and a handful of chickens residing in a mock farmyard behind the produce stand.
But it was plenty for the 13 children from Camarillo's Peace Lutheran Preschool visiting one day. They petted the goats and chased them around the pen. They tried in vain to get Rosie, a pygmy goat no bigger than themselves, to crawl into a feed sack.
McGrath, 43, who co-manages the farm with her father and two brothers, watched with delight. She previously taught elementary school and has a master's degree in early childhood education. She has a calm, gentle way with children and a strong message she wants to give them.
"It's real important for kids to know where their food comes from," McGrath said as she greeted the preschoolers touring the farm. "They think it comes from Alpha Beta."
More important, she said, is the need for the children to realize that farmland must be protected so it will continue to provide food for future generations.
The children had more immediate things on their minds that day as they climbed onto a long trailer fitted with benches for a ride through the fields. McGrath towed the trailer behind her truck and used a microphone to talk to the group. They held on as the truck slowly jostled along the dirt roads.
"Over to the right, see the tomatoes," McGrath said. "That corn there is Indian corn. We don't eat it. We use it for decoration. That field over there will be filled with bright orange pumpkins soon."
She taught them a new word-- irrigation-- and pointed out sprinklers and pipes, carefully explaining how necessary water is to the farmer. She showed them various tractors and other farm equipment.
At the green bean patch, she stopped, gave them plastic bags and let them hunt for beans. "I found one," a 4-year-old girl chirped. Others chimed in.
Heather Lambert, 5, wasn't about to wait for the beans to be cooked. She ate them as fast as she picked them.
McGrath picked a huge head of red-leaf lettuce and handed it to one of the youngsters to take home. Then she scanned the various rows of vegetables and asked, "who can point out the carrots? The carrot is really a root. Did you know that?"
On the way back, she looked across the fields to the other side of the highway and pointed at a hill. "The Chumash Indians lived here many years ago," she said. "They liked living here. The ocean was near, there was nice sun, and they were able to eat what they wanted."
McGrath provides teachers with a packet of information on farming in Ventura and in California to be used back in the classroom. The packet is put together by California Women for Agriculture, a group in which McGrath is active. In it are several informational tidbits:
Lemons are Ventura County's top crop, followed by nursery items, then celery, strawberries, Valencia oranges, avocadoes, lettuce, cut flowers, cabbage and spinach. Lemons took the top spot in 1930, replacing lima beans.
For 41 years, California has been the nation's leading agricultural state, producing more than 250 crops and livestock commodities, everything from pomegranates to pistachios. The state claims only 3% of the country's farmland, yet it produces 50% of the nation's fruits, nuts and vegetables.
McGrath wants the children to appreciate how special California's farmland is. "The soil is so unique," she said. "We need to take care of it for future generations if we are going to continue feeding the population."
* WHERE AND WHEN: The McGrath family farm and Central Market are located just off the Ventura Freeway in Camarillo. Take the Central Avenue exit. Tours are available by reservation. The cost is $2.50 per child and $3 per adult. Fees are the same for a visit to the McGrath pumpkin patch in the fall. For more information, call 482-4410.