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Farmers Hope Working With Kids Bears Fruit

Food: To help keep Ventura County's agricultural tradition alive, growers are reaching out to interest new generations.


Although she is new to farming, Ojai apple grower Esther Wachtell wanted her grandkids to know something about the traditions of Ventura County agriculture and the workings of the harvest.

So, as creator of Eve's Apples, she supplied a little temptation.

Money. Five dollars an hour, to be exact.

With that, she put five of her grade-school-age grandchildren to work last month sorting, sizing and shipping the Crimson Galas that sprout every summer in a 10-acre orchard at her Oak Knoll Ranch.

"I certainly would like them to understand the opportunities [provided by] farming," said Wachtell, who with her husband, Tom, gave up city life in Los Angeles seven years ago for ranch life in the bucolic Ojai Valley. "And I hope they will cherish that, protect it and take care of it."

She is not alone. On the farm and in schools, a growing number of Ventura County youngsters are the focus of efforts to demonstrate the significance and value of the county's oldest and most prominent industry.

Those efforts mirror state and national trends that show a growing interest at high school and community colleges in agriculture, a movement that experts say is fueled by new technology in the industry.

Locally, those efforts include an educational campaign by the Hansen Trust--which helps support and sustain local agriculture--to get young people to understand the importance of farming so that as voting-age adults they can help ensure that it continues to hold its own against suburban sprawl.

At its historic Santa Paula farm, the trust hosts teacher workshops, student career days and a hands-on learning center designed to let youngsters know where their food comes from and how vital agriculture is to the local economy.

On a more intimate level, family farmers such as Wachtell are handing down their own lessons of the harvest, often as a way of priming younger generations to become involved in the family business so they can take over when the time is right.

Wachtell said that is not necessarily her goal. But she said she wouldn't mind if one or more of her grandchildren decided to follow in her footsteps.

"At this point, I've put so much of myself into this place, I'd like to keep it in the family," she said.

Keeping the farm in the family can be a tricky proposition, however.

California FarmLink, a Sonoma-area nonprofit dedicated to preserving family farming, said many growers lack information about how to keep their land in agricultural production while planning for retirement.

Then there are the challenges facing family farmers as they attempt to transfer land and business operations from one generation to the next.

Steve Schwartz, FarmLink's executive director, said those issues have become more pressing as California's farmers, on average, get older and it becomes increasingly difficult for young farmers to break into the business.

His group holds workshops throughout the state to provide information and technical assistance to those who want help planning for the transition.

"You have a lot of families out there saying, 'Who is going to take over the farm?' " Schwartz said. "The message we try to get across is that succession planning for family farmers is something that needs to start early."

It is a lesson Leavens Ranches has taken to heart.

That's why the prominent Ventura County family that owns the business launched "Camp Mary" a few years ago. It's a summertime effort to educate the youngest generation about farming, family history and the business workings at the lemon and avocado ranch.

The first program, named after one of the senior family members, was held two years ago. The second was held in July, when more than a dozen Leavens offspring descended on the family farm near Santa Paula for a two-day primer.

The youngsters learned to identify pests and how they affect fruit. They explored the intricacies of fruit DNA and toured packinghouses. They were even tested on the material, just to make sure they were paying attention.

"We felt they ought to know what the farm is really about, how it works," said Carolyn Leavens, who along with other senior family members brought the idea to life.

"We want to stay in agriculture, and they'll be the ones making the decisions before too long," she said. "If we don't educate the next generation, they're going to get bored and lose interest. And the upshot is, they not only lose interest, they lose the farm."

At the Oak Knoll Ranch, the lessons aren't quite so structured.

But on the opening day of the apple harvest, grandsons Jake Schine, 10, and Bradley Schine, 8, were learning plenty just the same. The boys are from Los Angeles. Jake is the veteran of the bunch, having been the first of Wachtell's grandchildren to man the apple operation.

"It's a lot of fun," said the fifth-grader, washing apples and placing them on a conveyor belt that takes them to be polished and sorted by size. "I like the feeling of being here and helping. It doesn't feel like work, not when you're having fun."

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