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Farm Field Trips: Experiencing Agriculture in Person

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Farms and fields, soil and irrigation make rich fodder for classroom discussions, making it easy to forget that farms can be valuable classrooms on their own. That’s why the agricultural field trips led for the past two years by Howard Rosenberg, a cooperative extension specialist in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics, have proven so valuable to students.

It all started when two doctoral candidates approached Rosenberg in 2008, lamenting that they were about to finish their dissertations but had yet to set foot on a farm. They weren’t the only ones. Students, says Rosenberg, “have expressed a lot of interest in getting away from keyboards.” Such trips were once de rigueur for agriculture students. But since the 1980s, he says, “the opportunities have been pretty rare.”

Rosenberg arranged a farm tour for the third week of August, just before classes were to resume for the year. The first stop on the three-day, two-night trip was the office of a farm labor contractor in Firebaugh, 43 miles west of Fresno. From there, Rosenberg and five students drove to Mendota for a melon harvest, to Fowler for a raisin harvest, and to Caruthers for an almond plant that processes one-third of California’s stock. In Fresno, they met with a farm worker union organizer. Driving west over the Coast Range, they visited a flower nursery in Watsonville, and then went south to experience a lettuce harvest in Gonzales.

Damian Bickett, an agriculture and resource economics doctoral candidate studying water rights, says the trip opened his eyes to the realities of farming. “I feel like I have better knowledge of what’s going on in agriculture,” he says. “The main thing I took from it was how innovative the farmers were. Almost all of them seemed to be trying something new to carve out their niche.”

In 2009, Rosenberg teamed up with a colleague at UC Davis to conduct a pair of late-summer trips. Part one was a two day, one-night tour of the Sacramento Valley, including a dairy operation in Orland and the Sierra Nevada Brewing Company in Chico. Part two was a longer trip that reversed the first year’s itinerary. Of the six students that attended, most told Rosenberg they wished they’d done it earlier. “It’s a big world of agriculture out there,” he says. “I think anyone who participated got a whole new dimension of understanding.”

-Nate Seltenrich

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