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Desert agriculture sows a lifetime of learning

February 19, 2011|By WILLIAM ROLLER | Imperial Valley Press Staff Writer
  • Nancy Caywood, Farm Smart outreach coordinator and tour guide, harvests romaine lettuce at the Farm Smart fields west of Holtville.
William Roller

For anyone, especially students, who think food comes from a grocery store, the Farm Smart program shows how nutrition starts in the fields.

On a 255-acre farm west of Holtville, visitors can participate in hands-on activities from grinding corn, milking “Bessie,” a simulated cow, making butter or even picking their own lettuce, beets or broccoli, said Nancy Caywood, outreach coordinator.

“Our purpose is to nurture awareness about natural and renewable resources,” Caywood said. “We hope each generation conserves and manages our resources and makes them available for future generations.”

The fields at 1004 E. Holton Road are part of a research farm under the direction of the Desert Research and Extension Center, University of California, Davis.

The center’s primary research involves wheat and carrot breeding along with feedlot, irrigation, drainage and pest management. Researchers also develop several crop varieties that include Imperial lettuce and artichoke, Sonora alfalfa and UC Signal barley. And they do studies on melon and lettuce disease.

Caywood leads tours three times a week for winter visitors. The center also does outreach at fairs and after-school programs.

During her 10 years of leading tours, more than 72,000 people have toured the farm, she said.

Farm Smart also schedules seasonal programs. March is “My Agr-licious Food Pyramid,” where visitors learn about seeds, soil types and crawl through a soil tunnel.

In late spring, a program on insects shows how to identify beneficial and nonbeneficial insects, learn the importance of pollination, sample honey varieties and make beeswax candles.

In October, visitors tour feedlots, plant alfalfa and learn it is really ice cream in the making. And the Fall Fest shows visitors how to make plastic from corn starch and enjoy a hay ride.

“It started small and evolved into a community outreach program for learners of all ages,” Caywood said. “In the Fall Fest we perform a hoedown, with my husband, Al Robertson, playing autoharp and myself on guitar, doing novelty tunes Al wrote about agriculture.”

Meanwhile, winter visitors who volunteer — Gordon and May King, Larry and Shirley Durran, Ken and Jackie Early as well as Alan and Cathy Sweet — enhance tour experiences, Caywood said. The tours bring awareness that to grow food there is a process from seed to shelf, she said.

“It’s a fun farm, a good place to work and lots of beneficial things happen here,” Caywood said.

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