Bringing Farming to Life for Arizona Students

From coast to coast food groups, agricultural organizations, locavores, and others are attempting to reconnect consumers with where their food comes from. Through the years, people have lost touch with the fact that the food they enjoy daily somehow, someway originated on a farm. There is an absolute disconnect with who is providing the food.

Who is, better yet, what is a farmer? Recently several classes of third-grade students had the opportunity to meet a couple farmers in Arizona – they now have a pretty good idea of who is providing their food and where it is coming from.

With temperatures hovering above 100 degrees and students already back to school, Western Growers Foundation (WGF) Administrator Briana Lewis stood before a class of third grade students at Cerritos Elementary in Phoenix recently to deliver a $1,250 check, so that the children there could continue to maintain their already-thriving school garden. Lewis engaged in a little give and take with the kids – asking what their favorite vegetable was, or what was their favorite activity in the garden. As her brief dialogue came to an end, she informed the eager pupils that she had brought along a friend – a real-life farmer.

All of a sudden the 30 or so students began to clamor. They gasped, looked around, whispered in excitement to themselves … who and where was this farmer? They didn’t see any elderly men in overalls armed with a pitch fork. They didn’t see anyone manning a plow. Stationed around the five rows of seats before the garden were a handful of adults – school administrators, volunteers, parents and teachers – most of whom these kids recognized. There was one unfamiliar face – one gentleman who walked forward to join Ms. Lewis at the front of the class.

Dressed in shorts, a flowered shirt, dark sunglasses and a baseball cap to guard against the scorching sun, Western Growers Director and past Chairman of the Board Will Rousseau, Rousseau Farming Company, Tolleson, Ariz., stepped forward and with a smile stretched across his face, said, “I am probably not what you were expecting, am I?”

In that moment the children were silent. They were in awe. They had never met a farmer before, and Rousseau was not what farmers look like in their history books. Rousseau began to paint a verbal picture of what life is like on a farm. He talked about his family farming in the Phoenix area since the late 1800s. He talked about how baby carrots are processed and how watermelons are produced without seeds. As Rousseau spoke, a veil was slowly being lifted – these kids were starting to understand what farming was all about and where their food comes from. After speaking for just a few minutes, Rousseau opened it up to questions. The kids wanted to know how many different fruits and vegetables he had grown, the size of his farm, what vegetable he liked most and even questioned him on his age. Before he left, the former WG chairman of the board toured the school’s garden and answered questions from the school’s volunteers. He even made sure each child walked away with a bag of baby carrots.

“We feel so fortunate to not only have been given this fabulous grant, but also have the pleasure of having Mr. Rousseau give a presentation to our students.   We all learned so much from him being here and we are already using the lessons and advice he gave us when harvesting our watermelons,” said Sloane Espey, Cerritos Elementary School’s garden volunteer.

Through its school garden program, WGF has been reconnecting children with where their food comes from for seven years. To date, the Foundation has had a hand in more than 415 gardens in Arizona and California. Students from 20 more Arizona schools will watch their school gardens flourish this fall thanks to WGF, which partnered with the Arizona Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Consultation and Training and, for the third year in a row, the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension in Phoenix. Throughout the summer, the partnering organizations provided funding, training and resources for these schools to plant or renovate gardens.

Following the event at Cerritos Elementary, Lewis visited four more schools in the Phoenix area and then headed south to visit four more schools in Tucson. Each school is at a different stage of development in terms of their garden program. Some schools like Hollinger Elementary are well on their way, with a garden program that dates back 16 years. Others, like Anna Henry Elementary, have a team of willing teachers, eager parent volunteers, and a supportive district ready to get their garden growing but have not had the funding to get started. WGF’s grant dollars will allow them to do just that.

Though it’s not feasible to have a local farmer accompany Lewis to each school she visits, she was flanked by Western Growers member Brent Harrison, Al Harrison Co. Distributors, Nogales, Ariz., when she visited Sunrise Drive Elementary School in Tucson. These students also had never met a farmer. They had no idea what went into getting a watermelon from the field to their lunch boxes, that is until they had heard from Harrison. There was a familiar buzz when Lewis announced she had a farmer with her, and after talking about everything from personal size and seedless watermelons to how the watermelon queen is crowned, Harrison’s celebrity grew ten-fold when the third graders found out he had brought seedless watermelon cubes and watermelon activity books to share with them.

“We are so thankful to the Western Growers members like Will and Brent who volunteer their time to share their knowledge with our partner schools,” said Lewis. “Nothing makes the connection to where your food comes from quite like having a real farmer explain the process. Their involvement makes agriculture real for these students.”

Lewis also received a tour of the school’s joint use garden from three students. Each of these students’ families had adopted plots in the community section of the garden. The garden at Sunrise Drive serves as an outdoor classroom not only for the school’s students, but the surrounding community as well. The garden has many plots that are available to the community. Community Gardens of Tucson provides educational sessions in the garden once a month.

To support the Foundation, or to express interest in participating in a school event, please contact the Foundation at wgf@wga.com.