By Vicky Boyd

Although many of her students aren't even 5 years old yet, Thuy Teresa Lu said the San Joaquin Farm Bureau gave her some new ideas about how she can teach them about agriculture.

"I guess I am now more aware of all of the kinds of jobs that are offered and the kind of job opportunities in farming," said Lu, a transitional kindergarten teacher at John R. Williams Elementary in Stockton. "That's besides taking care of the land. I can talk about all of the wide variety of things out in the ag community and all of the different things about animals. They need to know where their food comes from. This gives me better background knowledge so I can better explain to them more in depth."

Jonya Meyer's third-grade students are a few years older than Lu's, but agriculture is still top of mind as she looks to the next school year.

"Our school does AgVenture and we also do an ag day, so this is just another way to bring agriculture to our third-graders," said Meyer, who teaches at Great Valley Academy in Manteca. "(Ag in the Classroom) actually provided us with some really great lesson plans and some great resources for our lesson plans, so I'm starting early."

Lu and Meyer were among 30 teachers who participated in the San Joaquin Farm Bureau's four-day-long Ag in the Classroom program in mid-June. Now in its 32nd year, it is designed to educate the educators about the county's No. 1 industry, said Rachael Fleming SJFB program director who oversees AITC. The hope is they will incorporate a portion of what they learned about agriculture into their lesson plans to enlighten the next generation.

During the four days, the teachers visited 16 different agricultural operations designed to give them exposure to the county's diverse agricultural industry and ag-related job opportunities. From stops at Union Livestock Inc. and Musco Family Olives in Tracy to tours of Perfectly Pomegranate in Stockton and Kubota Tractor Corp. in Lodi, the group heard first-hand from farmers, ranchers and allied industry representatives about their role in agriculture.

The program has become so popular that Fleming maintains a wait list of people who couldn't get in the previous year.

"I feel like this year I was contacted more frequently and began earlier, so that helps the wait list grow," she said. The wait-list this year numbered about 20 teachers.

Fleming designs the tour stops based on a survey of teachers from the previous year where they're asked about what they'd like to see more.

One year, for example, the teachers said they wanted to visit more animal operations, so Fleming added Union Livestock Inc. of Tracy. 

This year, many of those surveyed said they had a hard time picking their favorite tour stops because they all were informative in their own right, Fleming said.

"A lot of the teachers had trouble ranking them because they got something different out of each tour," she said. During the program's first day this year, attendees had lunch at Kautz Farms. The new addition was designed to give teachers first-hand knowledge of farm to fork, thanks to tour hosts, Fleming said. Ratto Bros., for example, provided the salad makings; Von Groningen & Sons, the melons; and Long Ranch, the pig.

David Strecker, SJFB first vice president, took time off from his farming operation west of Stockton to host the teachers at the Roberts Union Farm Center and show them around the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. 

"They're going to go back and teach the next generation about the importance of agriculture," said Strecker, a fifth-generation farmer. 

Joining him was Amy Bohlken, an ag teacher and FFA adviser at Sierra High School in Manteca. She provided the teachers with a lesson plan on soil structure that involved Oreo cookies, Peanut M&M's, chocolate pudding, shredded coconut and a gummy worm on top. The "edible soils" project could be easily modified for kindergarteners up to high schoolers, Bohlken said.

Not only is the Delta important from a crop production standpoint, but Strecker told the teachers it also is at the center of several environmental debates including water quality and the Twin Tunnels. As the bus drove around Roberts and Union islands, he discussed the changes in soil type and groundwater depth and how they influenced crops and production practices.

Citing the county's diversity, Strecker said his goal was to provide the teachers with an overview of but one aspect of the region's agriculture.

Sandy Simpson, a retired Lodi teacher who was riding along on some of the tours, grew up on a Lodi winegrape operation. But she said even she was surprised by the wide variety of crops and operations.

"People don't realize they're living in an ag area, and they don't know about it," said Simpson, wife of SJFB board member Dave Simpson. "If you know agriculture, you're more aware of it. But even I'm now more aware of it. It's really good just because we live in an agricultural county to know all about the diversity."

Karen Cultrera, who sits on the SJFB Foundation for Agricultural Education and chairs the Ag Education Committee, has been helping with Ag in the Classroom for the past 16 years.

"It's important for the teachers to learn where their food comes from in San Joaquin County and pass that along to their students because there's such a disconnect," she said. "Nowadays, they think food comes from the grocery store."

Claudia Valente, who has been involved with the AITC program for nearly as long, agreed.

"So many of the kids don't know about agriculture and what's happening, so hopefully the teachers can tell them about the job opportunities," said Valente, wife of SJFB Foundation President Joe Valente. "They don't realize what we do. And most of these teachers don't know that much about ag either."

Corrina Lewis, a fourth-grade teacher at Lathrop Elementary School, signed up for Ag in the Classroom after hearing rave reviews from colleagues who had participated previously. She said she was lucky to get into the popular program since there was a wait list.

Lewis grew up in San Joaquin County and thought she knew about agriculture until the group visited the various operations.

"There are a whole lot of positives," Lewis said about what she learned. "Farmers are really dedicated, it's important to them and they have a lot of pride in what they do. On the negative side, the challenges they have with the costs of labor, the regulations and the technological advances.  "I didn't realize this. You just think farming is easy – you don't realize how tough it is and the concerns they have."

Although Lewis admitted she was suffering from a bit of information overload, she also pointed to myriad lesson-planning resources provided to participants.

David Nielsen, who teaches second grade at Sutherland Elementary in Stockton, already had some ideas about how he was going to put his new-found knowledge to work. 

"It gives me another avenue to reach my kids," he said. In social studies, for example, they study consumerism and how items get to the store. Seeing the steps from field to fork will enable Nielsen to include agriculture in his lessons.

In language arts, he said he plans to have students write about or discuss different elements within agriculture. "There's just so much I've seen so far from the almond business to Corto Olive oil," said Nielsen, who is originally from Nebraska.