By Vicky Boyd 

David Phippen has lost count of how many groups of teachers he has toured through his family’s Manteca almond hulling, shelling and packing plant as part of San Joaquin Farm Bureau’s annual Ag In The Classroom program.

“It goes back a long ways,” said Phippen, a SJFB board member who also sits on the SJFB Foundation for Agricultural Education board. “I’m married to a teacher and have a daughter who’s a teacher. And our family has always stressed education – my father served on the board of education for several years. I just think it’s so darn important to support the teaching profession. Any little chance to help the next generation know where their food comes from, we have to swing at that ball.”

Karen Cultrera, also a member of the SJFB and Ag Education boards, has accompanied the teachers for the past 17 years. When asked why she continues to volunteer nearly a week of her time each summer to Ag in the Classroom, she said, “I just enjoy it. I think it’s important that the teachers learn about ag in our county, so they can pass it along to their students. Kids are so removed from the farm now they just think food comes from the grocery store.”

Jim Ferrari, who grows walnuts and cherries with his sons near Linden, said he decided to host the teachers this year to provide them a glimpse of what goes into producing food.

“I think it’s important that we educate the people about what we do, and they can see the business side of what we do and how all of these regulations impact our financial stability,” said Ferrari, SJFB immediate past president and a Foundation board member.

Phippen, Cultrera and Ferrari were three of the roughly two dozen agricultural leaders who conducted a kind of show and tell about their respective ag-related endeavors. Among the themes heard in many of the presentations were increasing labor costs, increasing regulations and steps farmers were taking to better steward natural resources.

SJFB’s Ag In The Classroom program, now in its 33 year, is designed to educate teachers about the county’s most important industry as well as provide them with ag-related lesson plans and materials they can use in their classrooms.

To keep the group size manageable, the program is limited to 30 teachers each year, said Rachael Fleming, SJFB program director, who over sees AITC. Those on the previous year’s wait list are given two weeks to sign up in April before Fleming opens up registration to everybody. She also gives preference to first-timers. This year, there was only one repeat participant.

“We had a lot of people who were really eager,” Fleming said. “We had a lot of people who were on last year’s wait list, and it filled up pretty early.”

Tiffany Herringer, who teaches agriculture at Bear Creek High School in Stockton, said she registered for AITC to learn more about the region’s agriculture since she had previously lived and taught in King City. Chris Herringer, who teaches eighth-grade math and computer science at Morada Middle School in Stockton, accompanied his wife to learn more about area farming.

“When you hire an ag teacher, you hire the whole family,” Chris Herringer said. “I like to work with her students, and I want to be more up on my ag knowledge in general.”

Each year, the agenda for the four-day program is slightly different. Based on input from the previous year’s participants, Foundation for Agricultural Education board members and SJFB board members, Fleming schedules tours that showcase the county’s diverse agriculture. 

This year, for example, SJFB board members recommended an emphasis on water, so she scheduled a Delta levee tour and a visit to the Lodi groundwater recharge project. Fleming also encourages presenters to discuss career opportunities within agriculture, because teachers have said they find that meaningful. Based on teacher input, she also added more hands-on projects this year.

“A lot of the teachers you could see were getting that glazed look because they get a lot of information, so we’re trying to do more activities so they’re not being talked at the whole time,” Fleming said.

In addition, many of last year’s participants taught lower grades and said they wanted more class activities designed for younger students.

For example, Fleming added a presentation by San Joaquin County 4-H Program Representative Arial Clay to show how students – even if they don’t live on a farm – could get involved in agriculture through 4-H. Clay also demonstrated how teachers could enhance a classroom chicken egg hatching project.

The popular edible soil structure lesson plan, which involves Oreo cookies, Peanut M&Ms, chocolate pudding, shredded coconut and a gummy worm on top, returned. It can be modified for kindergartners up to high schoolers, said Amy Bohlken, an ag teacher and FFA adviser at Sierra High School in Manteca, who again demonstrated the project.

Mosha Smith, who teaches seventh-grade English language arts and electives at Neil Hafley School in Manteca, had heard about the edible soil project before. But she liked that Bohlken showed how it could be modified for middle and high schoolers.

“She showed me ways I can do it with older students, and I would have never thought to have them explain it back to me before they eat it,” Smith said.

Fleming also added a class exercise where students could learn how to make ice cream in a zippered plastic bag.

New this year were individual headsets purchased by the Ag Education Foundation so even people in the rear of a group or the back of the bus could hear the speakers.

“There’s so much great information, but it’s hard to hear going through the processing facilities,” Fleming said. 

The headsets drew rave reviews in their inaugural outing at Morada Produce, where everybody could clearly hear Austin Stevenot of Morada explain the computerized optical cherry sorting lines.