By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
WESTPORT - Thirty-six Central Valley High School students traded textbooks, computers, notebooks and pens Wednesday for a shovel, potting soil and green thumbs to give birds more reason to flourish on a farm west of Ceres.

The group spent about five hours on the farm of county Supervisor Jim DeMartini, planting more than 800 native plants along a 1-acre edge of the farm.

DeMartini, a self-professed bird lover, volunteered his land for the restoration project, designed to encourage the 43 species of birds living along the nearby river to inhabit an area where wine grapes are grown.

"A lot of the riparian areas have been destroyed," said DeMartini, who owns 100 acres along a three-mile stretch of the Tuolumne River.

Students braved chilly temperatures to participate in the second of three work days. On Nov. 2 they installed plastic drip irrigation lines. Last week they dug holes and planted varieties of shrubs and trees. They included the California Rose, wild lilac, California piche, red bud and wild flower flats to bring in butterflies, and bees and beneficial pollinators.

In March they will return to see how the plants have grown.

Matthew Menor, an AP biology student, said the day's work gave him a good feeling knowing he was helping restore the native environment where previous generations of bird and insect species flourished.

About an hour into the planting, Jaziel Jimenez was noticing the cold was getting to her feet but she was having fun.

Meghan Hertel, the San Joaquin River Project Manager of Audubon California, was on hand to offer technical advice and knowledge. She said the benefits of native plants lining a driveway into DeMartini's vineyard include providing important cover and food resources for birds and wildlife while also reducing soil erosion and attracting native pollinators.

"He's actually a rare land owner," Hertel said of DeMartini. "We've lost 90 to 95 percent of riparian habitat in the Valley. It's a lot of things. It's urbanization, farming right up to the river edge, channelizing so a lot of the creeks we used to have are irrigation ditches."

A lot of sloughs were filled in during the 1940s and 1950s, added DeMartini.

"There used to be natural ponds out here but a lot of that's been gone now. But I think we need to start looking at restoring some of the habitat that used to be here so it'll be in place for the birds," said DeMartini.

"Our goal," said Hertel, "is really to show that you can put in little pieces of native habitat and it can work within an ag landscape and it can be mutually beneficial. Plus it's kind of a great project to get kids involved to learn about restoration and learn about agriculture."

DeMartini said birds aren't a problem to his wine grapes. As an invasive species, starlings typically feast on grapes but already travel where they like. Hertel said birds do eat insects that could harm grapes.

Also involved in the project is the Migratory Bird Conservation Partnership (a collaboration between Audubon California, The Nature Conservancy, and Point Reyes Bird Observatory) and the Center for Land-Based Learning.

DeMartini has been eager to make his farm bird friendly. He spent money in clearing a thicket of non-native giant bamboos at river's edge which replaced native species which offered cover and insects for birds. The invasive species of bamboo was introduced by farmers who decades saw it as a way to stabilize river banks.

State and federal grant funds can help landowners like DeMartini finance restoration projects, said Hertel. The U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife funded the couples of thousand of dollars in plants.

Participating students come from Advanced Placement biology, ag biology and landscaping classes.

"It's been fantastic for them," said CVHS ag instructor Ken Moncrief. "It's a blend of showing how agriculture is affecting the environment and how the environment can be re-established back into agriculture. It's 'learn by doing.' This is such a hard thing in education today... to be able to get the kids out of the classroom and be able to go out and do this stuff. This is right here in our backyard."

Students are also paired up with mentors for the U.C. Cooperative Extension who talk about biology, allowing them to see careers linked to ag. They also heard from an entomologist who discusses helpful and harmful insects.

DeMartini told students that he wanted to stay during the work day but had to tend to county business - helping to draft an ordinance on truck parking on agricultural land.