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'Check Out the Cotton Growing on the Back of This Sheep!'

Agriculture: Industry and educators team up to teach city kids about farm issues--and where Oreos come from.


BAKERSFIELD — Ask any Los Angeles schoolkid, and you're liable to hear that agriculture is a breeze: cotton grows on sheep, chocolate milk is produced by brown cows and white milk comes from a carton at Ralphs.

It's not surprising, then, that California's diverse agricultural interests have teamed up to shine some factual light on the state's largest industry. From county fair booths to World Wide Web sites to summertime seminars in the Central Valley, growers and farm advisors are attempting to cultivate awareness about crop pests, irrigation water and food safety.

Much of their attention is focused on the elementary and secondary schoolteachers who attempt to guide classrooms filled with young city slickers toward a better understanding of where food comes from.

The hope is that teachers and students who feel more connected to their meals--and more aware of the economic benefits of the state's $24.5-billion agriculture business--will be more sympathetic to the challenges that farmers endure, often in the face of vocal opposition from environmental and farm-labor groups. Today's students, farmers figure, are the voters of tomorrow who will be making decisions on land use, taxation and other issues vital to agriculture.

Buffered from row crops and livestock by high-rises and freeways, urban children and their parents these days also face a bewildering barrage of often contradictory information about pesticide safety, ground water pollution, urban-rural clashes over water and fieldworker sanitation. Recent crises such as E. coli poisoning from unpasteurized apple juice made by a California company, and the fear earlier this year of hepatitis A in frozen fruit cups processed in San Diego and served at Los Angeles schools, spotlight just some of the ills afflicting modern agriculture--problems that hit close to home for the state's 6 million schoolchildren.


Meanwhile, changing times and budget cuts have spelled the demise of home economics classes and playground greenhouses, once a staple at schools statewide. But a move is afoot to bring back some of those programs, including a push for school gardens promoted by Schools Superintendent Delaine Eastin.

"There's a greater and greater need for this kind of education," said California Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman, who has helped beef up the state's agricultural education programs in the last year.

As Joan Zamora's students spent early August kicking back at soccer camps or splashing in neighborhood swimming pools, the Los Angeles teacher took unpaid leave from summer teaching duties to spend three blistering days at a Bakersfield seminar sponsored by the Kern County Farm Bureau and the Kern Agricultural Foundation, a nonprofit group established to bolster educational efforts.

There she heard lectures about crop-dusting, farm workers and the propagation of beneficial insects to cut down on chemical use. She toured the high-tech baby-cut-carrot plant of William Bolthouse Farms, one of the nation's leading producers, and fingered bales of cotton at Calcot, a big cotton-growers cooperative.

She also visited potato fields and packing sheds of Lehr Bros., a diversified agribusiness outfit, where manager Pete Belluomini contributed purple potatoes--the stuff of haute cuisine--for planting this fall by Zamora's third-grade students at Dorris Place Elementary School, near downtown.

"My kids have never touched a cow," Zamora said of the school's multicultural medley of Asian, Latino, African American and Russian students, many of them new immigrants. "They have no idea that a carton of milk comes out of a living animal. When they see a jar of strawberry jam, they have no idea what the fruit looks like."

They're not alone. Veneman, reared on a peach farm in Modesto, ruefully tells of her niece, who two years ago, at age 11, wondered why the secretary's agency is called the California Department of Food and Agriculture. "Why food, Auntie Ann?" the girl wanted to know. "Not all food comes from agriculture. Look at Oreos."

This, Veneman noted, from a girl who lives in the middle of the fertile Salinas Valley and whose father works in a pasta plant.

Decades ago, most people had some tie to farming. That is no longer true, especially in a sprawling metropolis such as Los Angeles.

"Less than 2% of the nation's population is farmers," Veneman said. "In Thomas Jefferson's time, 97% were. In less than 200 years, we've gone from a nation of almost complete agricultural dependency to one with no connection."

Teachers such as Arleen Peta are hoping to rebuild that tie. A 17-year veteran at Miles Avenue Elementary School in Huntington Park, she has been integrating agriculture into her fifth-graders' lessons and activities since 1981. Her classes have assembled a life-size model of a Holstein cow (complete with all four stomachs) and once adopted a dairy farmer.

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