At the end of her rookie year as a Thousand Oaks schoolteacher, Melissa Gross realized she still had much to learn.
That's how she ended up in summer school last week, picking lemons and packing avocados so she could understand more about Ventura County agriculture and learn ways to teach her students about it.
"I definitely think that kids need to know where their food comes from and how important the land is to the way we live," said Gross, a second-grade teacher at University School who knew little about farming despite having grown up in this agriculture-rich county.
"If I don't know, how are they going to know?" she asked, referring to her students. "I think being a good teacher means you need to go out there and broaden your knowledge and bring it back to the classroom."
Gross was among 30 Ventura County educators who took part in the Hansen Trust's annual teachers seminar, a three-day workshop designed to train educators to incorporate lessons about agriculture into the classroom.
The teachers toured farms and hothouses, got a close-up look at the county's clandestine war against crop-destroying pests and learned how to create school gardens to teach youngsters about farming.
The program, launched by the University of California-administered trust in 1994, is meant to show teachers how to blend agricultural themes into everyday subjects such as science, math and social studies.
But it also has a wider aim, laying the groundwork for an ongoing campaign to get young people to understand the importance of farming so that as voting-age adults they can help ensure that it continues to hold its own against suburban sprawl.
"We want to increase teachers' knowledge and awareness of agriculture so they can pass that on to their students," said Sheri Klittich, program administrator for the Hansen Trust. "It's all about increasing agricultural literacy in our county."
Nearly 400 Ventura County teachers have gone through the summer program, one of dozens held statewide.
Most teachers return to their classrooms with a handful of farming-based lesson plans. And many have gone back to their schools and created gardens.
Santa Paula teacher Maria Gutierrez, who for two decades has taught the sons and daughters of farm workers, said she believes the program provides valuable lessons for her students.
She should know. The first-grade teacher at Webster School worked in the fields alongside her mother, a single parent who picked strawberries and string beans to support her eight children.
Gutierrez remembers as a youngster feeling embarrassed about her farm-worker roots, knowing that she had to work in the fields during the summer and on weekends, unlike many of her classmates.
But it was a point of pride last week when the Hansen Trust farm tour stopped at a field across the street from where she used to muscle string beans from the ground.
"I want my students to understand that they should have pride in what their parents do, that they contribute to our society by putting food on our table," said Gutierrez, adding that the seminar opened her eyes to the range of farm-related jobs available.
"But I also want them to know that they don't have to be pickers," she said. "They can be farm managers, they can be plant biologists, they can be horticulturists. They can own the whole farm, if their dreams are that big."
At the Santa Paula lemon and avocado ranch run by Link Leavens, the teachers got a taste of what it is like to work the farm. Wearing leather work gloves and shouldering 60-pound sacks, they fanned out through an orchard thick with trees but lean on fruit.
Their charge was to cut down as much marketable citrus as possible. Jayne Marchioni and Penny Robison, both teachers at the private St. Patrick's Episcopal School in Thousand Oaks, quickly learned it wasn't easy. Marchioni served as the scout, searching out the best citrus. Wielding a set of clippers, Robison provided the muscle.
"Oh Penny, there's a beautiful one right there," said Marchioni, pointing to the top of one of the trees. "If I only had a ladder."
In the end, the 30 teachers picked half a bin in about 15 minutes. Leavens explained that his best pickers can fill several bins by themselves over the course of a six-hour day.
"When people talk about unskilled labor, you guys are a testament to the fact that the people who do this work are not unskilled; they are highly skilled," Leavens told the group.
Marchioni said she never had any doubt. She grew up on a walnut and apricot farm in Northern California, with a solid appreciation for the laborers and the work they do.
Still, she said last week's agricultural seminar provided her with good ideas for lessons she can do with her kindergartners. And she said she and Robison are planning to upgrade an existing garden at the small private school.
"If the kids are never exposed to any of these ideas, you can't expect them just to pick it up later," Marchioni said. "This program gave us the enthusiasm, the incentive, the community-support resources and an endless amount of Internet and print resources to tap."
The seminar is held twice each summer.
The next one is scheduled July 24-26 and there are still some slots available. The cost is $35, plus another $80 for teachers who want to get continuing education credits through Cal Lutheran University.
Bruce Freeman, education program coordinator for the Hansen Trust, said the activities during the three-day workshop are designed to make learning fun, for teachers and students. But he said it's not just about entertainment.
"We are really trying hard to preserve the traditions of agriculture in Ventura County," he said. "And we want to get kids started early, so that it becomes a lifelong understanding and something they pass down to future generations."