By Saoimanu Sope, UCANR
Desert REC program has reached more than 168,000 people thanks to broad community support
“Oohs” and “aahs” fill the classroom as Stacey Amparano, Farm Smart program manager at the Desert Research and Extension Center in Holtville, yanks an ear of corn off a stalk. Holding it high in the air, she begins shucking the corn to reveal a bright yellow color.
“It’s corn!” yells a member of the audience. Amparano demonstrates how to shuck and shell corn to a group of local kindergarteners, all while explaining its many uses.
Farm Smart, an outreach program focused on agricultural literacy, has educated more than 168,000 people in the Imperial Valley and surrounding areas since its inception in 2001. The program is an integral part of Desert REC – one of nine centers operated across the state by University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources – and serves K-12 students and their families.
Nestled in the southeastern corner of the state, Imperial Valley is home to over 500,000 acres of farmable land and more than 65 crops, making it an ideal place to teach youth about the valley’s significant contribution to California, the U.S., and the world.
“Farm Smart is a reminder to kids that they come from a place that feeds most of the country throughout the year. It’s something to be proud of,” said Amparano.
While the younger participants might not grasp the full impact of Farm Smart right away, the community sure does. More than 60% of the program’s funding comes from contributions from the community, including local organizations, institutions and families.
“I don’t think many people realize that a majority of Farm Smart is funded by the community. It makes this program even more special, that our own community believes in our impact and wants us to keep going,” Amparano said.
For example, the Imperial Irrigation District has supported and funded the program since it began, donating $107,500 in 2022 alone.
“This program has created an awareness of how food is grown, harvested and put on our table,” said Norma Galindo, former IID board director. “It invites participation from the elementary through high school grades and serves as a hands-on experience that is priceless.”
During her tenure, Galindo championed the increase of IID’s monetary allocation to Farm Smart and requested that older people be allowed to participate in the same manner as the students. This created an opportunity for Farm Smart to engage a segment of the population that is often overlooked. Like the youngsters, retirees escaping cold weather in northern states can learn about irrigation and soils and pick vegetables to take home.
Valeria Landeros, a community education specialist at Desert REC, grew up in the Imperial Valley and remembers attending a Farm Smart field trip in elementary school. “I remember learning how to milk a cow and make butter and thinking that we traveled somewhere far out of town,” she said.
“Most people who grow up in Imperial Valley and the greater area know nothing about the fields that surround us,” said Clarissa Abarca, another community education specialist at Desert REC.
Similar to Landeros, Abarca participated in Farm Smart field trips during elementary to high school and can attest to the program’s ability to modify its content and suit the interest of all ages. As an educator, Abarca gets most excited about instilling an appreciation for agriculture and introducing students to the numerous careers in the sector.
Galindo said that she expects that the IID Board will continue to support this program with crucial funds.
“Any other [county] that emulates this type of program stands to benefit from it, if and when it is done on a long-term and consistent basis. Teaching the city folks about farming is a process, not an event,” said Galindo.
Farm Smart was selected as a recipient of the California State Future Farmers of America Distinguished Service Award and will be recognized at the upcoming State FFA Conference in March.
To learn more about Farm Smart visit https://drec.ucanr.edu/Farm_Smart/.
UC Agriculture and Natural Resources brings the power of UC to all 58 California counties. Through research and Cooperative Extension in agriculture, natural resources, nutrition, economic and youth development, our mission is to improve the lives of all Californians. Learn more at ucanr.edu and support our work at donate.ucanr.edu.