The Ceres Unified School District's student farm was showcased during a recent breakfast and open house designed to thank business leaders in the community - and draw more donor dollars to expand the operation.
A 6.5-acre parcel of ground behind Hidahl Elementary School was set up three years ago to be a farm where students from Ceres High School and Central Valley High School can learn how to grow crops and care for animals. Students are in charge of planting, tending and harvesting row crops, fruits and vegetables for the district's Child Nutrition school lunch program. Students also learned about such practices as hydroponics and pesticide-free farming.
"My number one purpose of the open house was to thank the people who have helped," said Central Valley High agriculture teacher Ken Moncrief. "I have about four guys who have passionately taken this under their wing."
Future plans include building processing/refrigeration and animal facilities.
"We're trying to expand the farm," said Don Goudeau, a member of a committee helping the district to realize its dreams. "There has been some who have donated money but of course there is never enough."
The farm was recently equipped with a 50-foot by 60-foot metal building for an education and produce processing center that was paid for by Sid Long and son Scott Long of Superior Fruit Ranch. The slab was funded by the Ceres Rotary Club. But funds are needed to run electricity to it, said Goudeau. Running power from Hidahl Elementary School will cost an estimated $16,000 while running an overhead power line would cost $8,000 to $10,000.
Another priority is to establish a swine production facility so that swine FFA-member students can raise animals for the county fair. Currently students are using dirt pens near the Ceres wastewater treatment plant.
"We've outgrown it,' said Moncrief of the Blaker Road facility. "Almost half of our kids raise pigs out in these little dirt pens.
About 15 to 20 FFA students at both high schools raised pigs for the county fair. The current half-acre facility can only handle eight pigs.
The swine farm is in design and estimated to cost roughly $50,000.
"We're also fund raising for that," said Moncrief.
The breakfast, held earlier this month, gave way to a tour of the facility for members of the agribusiness community and members of the Ceres School Board. FFA members stopped and explained various aspects of the operation along the way.
Moncrief told the group that more fruit trees are being added.
"One of the activities in my class is we're going to add primarily plums because they work really great for the cafeteria. So we're going to put in about 45 new fruit trees."
The farm already boasts 35 citrus trees and students are growing blue berries and will be adding boysenberries and black berries this fall.
Currently the farm has in production 150 fruit trees and 200 table grape vines and row crops that include peppers, tomatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, garlic and onions.
The farm sells the produce to the CUSD food nutrition program. The grapes alone helped raise $4,000 which goes back to support the student farm operation.
"It's a great partnership in the fact that it allows my students to go out there and learn about production agriculture by actually doing it and then there's a place for our stuff to go and the kids get to enjoy it for the school lunch," said Moncrief. "I try to pick things that are a little different so it's something a little bit different than the district would be buying. That's kind of why we went into the blue berries."
"It's really a tremendous thing," commented CUSD Supt. Scott Siegel.
Approximately 90 students receive hands-on experience at the Ceres Ag Center between 8 a.m. and 11 a.m. on Mondays and Tuesdays during the school year.
Moncrief said the district wants to bring younger students onto the farm once per year - much like the Ceres High School Farm Day - so that they may be educated about the growing of crops.
He also wants to see the student farm serve as a place where the community could learn about the pruning of fruit trees without leaving Ceres.
"We just don't have that in our immediate community."
Ceres Unified provided land, which has a value of $100,000, for the farm and assistance in financing for a tractor that cost $25,000.
"It benefits child nutrition," Siegel said. "The biggest thing is the experience the students get. They're running a business basically. It's a win-win."
"We have some great people in this community who have stepped forward and helped us do this," said Moncrief.
Former CUSD board member and Westport area farmer Dave Brown has been instrumental as well. Kyle VanVooren and father Greg VanVooren, another former CUSD trustee, have also helped. They have helped educate students on how to grow crops. Goudeau, who retired from the onion business, has assisted in educating students about row crops.
The outreach produced a donation from Mildred Lucas in memory of Grant Lucas, a lifelong Ceres farmer who died recently.
The public can donate to the farm by contacting Moncrief at firstname.lastname@example.org or phoning 556-1900.