At the crack of dawn on a glorious November morning, three dozen bleary-eyed Santa Barbara Middle School eighth-grade students headed out of their traditional Garden Street campus and traveled south on Highway 101 to combine Spanish, science, economics and human geography for the day. Big deal, right?
However, it’s not everyday that the classroom becomes Produce Row in a field of vine-ripe tomatoes on the Oxnard plain. On that day, the classroom instructors were the employees at Deardorff Family Farms, a fourth-generation farming business known for sustainable and organic farming, excellent working conditions and forward-thinking business practices. They grow strawberries, celery and mixed greens as well.
Student Spencer Bloomer said he couldn’t imagine working those acres of fields for eight hours every day.
“Doing it for an hour is going to be hard,” he said, “but I am interested to learn how my food gets from field to table.”
That was the theme for the day’s lessons.
Field trip organizer and Spanish teacher Kelly Rosenheim wanted to create in the students a sense of gratitude for what goes into getting food on the table, and a sense of empathy for those who help get it there.
“When you’re driving through the agricultural belt in Oxnard along Highway 101, you don’t capture the full immigrant experience,” fellow Spanish teacher Marco Andrade said. “These are people with stories, with families, with an agenda which is far deeper than just going to work. We want to try to give the students some perspective.”
With 10 newly picked tomatoes in hand, student Graham Collector placed them in the basket with a whole new attitude.
“I thought this was just a plant; something that grows in the ground, and then you pick it,” Collector said. “But it’s lot more complicated than that. This could be dinner tonight.”
Deardorff Farms grows on 2,000 acres, 20 percent of which is organic farming.
“The way we define sustainability is the three Ps: people, planet and profit,” said Scott Deardorff, one of the owners. “The people component speaks to incentive pay, bonuses and health insurance for all, including our part-time and seasonal workers.”
Deardorff said the company carefully considers the planet in its business practices.
“We utilize soft farming techniques, which include biologicals to control pests, natural fertilizers on conventional fields, and educating the farmers and community on our organic program,” he said, adding that profit strategies speak to using the latest tools and technology to maximize production. “Staying one step ahead of changing market conditions is vital.”
Although the market can rebound just as fast as it falls, student John Chambliss said he wondered about the risky economics of farming.
“It’s like a game, it’s like the stock market; you don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said. “The weather could change and ruin your whole supply of crops for that season.”
Mostly men work the fields. They come from various states in Mexico. Some stay local to harvest tomatoes and strawberries. Others follow the celery crop from Oxnard to Santa Maria to Salinas, and back again.
Santa Barbara Middle School students toured the packinghouse where tens of thousands of tomatoes are sorted and boxed each day. That is where most of the women work. The students were surprised to learn that the tomatoes are separated by size and grade.
“At the packing plant, there are 10 different bins for 10 different types of tomatoes that go to 10 different businesses,” Rosenheim said. “It’s an example of how sophisticated and complicated the agricultural business has become.”
The science component of the day was keenly noted by Santa Barbara Middle School science teacher Victor Dominocielo.
“Maintaining food safety and disease prevention, is really a science in and of itself,” Dominocielo said. “At the onset, you have to closely monitor what goes into the produce, beginning with the soil. Then you add fertilizers, pesticides, as well as how the growers and pickers handle the ripe produce, and this is a really closely monitored, scientific process.”
The day was a field of knowledge about family farming and migrant workers and their stories.
“Food is culture,” human geography teacher Jim Brady said. “This is not just about today; this gives us a lot to process and think about back in the classroom.”
As a field trip finale, the students included several self-addressed envelopes and attached one to each pallet of tomatoes. So far, these pallet destinations are unknown.
Meanwhile, Santa Barbara Middle School students are waiting patiently to hear from those whose plates the fruits of their own labors will land.
— Sue Carmody is a community outreach coordinator for Santa Barbara Middle School.