On a sunny spring day I make my way into Beth Swehla’s dome-shaped classroom at Anderson Valley High School. Class is just about wrapping up, kids are headed for lunch, and Beth greets me warmly while simultaneously introducing me to a three-legged goat kid. He jumps around the classroom deftly, seemingly unaware of his handicap, and Beth herself jumps right into it. She explains that one of his legs is fused, and how she has been bottle-feeding him for the last week. He seems perfectly happy and healthy, and she seems totally unfazed about this extra duty on top of her already heaping plate.
Beth has been working in the Agriculture Department at AVHS since the summer of 1989. She explains, “The agriculture program was already started at that point, started in the 50s or 60s, was closed down and then brought back to life sometime in 1983. I went to high school in Fort Bragg and studied agriculture there and at Fresno State. I worked at Hendy Woods in the early 80s and I saw the farm manager position open. At the beginning I was just managing the farm forty hours a week and then gradually I started teaching classes. There were a couple of agriculture teachers here. The farm manager’s job was to prep things for lab and to fix things. Now I am the agriculture teacher, the farm manager, and the FFA advisor. They synchronize well, but it’s more than one person can do.”
Despite that fact, Beth seems to keep the agriculture department running smoothly. We move from the classroom to the outdoors, where she takes me on a walking tour of the school farm. First, we pass by a lush garden and a well-established orchard with the trees planted quite close together. She explains that the trees were originally trellised, but over time the trellises rotted – now they are free-standing and produce quite a bit of fruit despite their close spacing. We visit a shade house where there are several chicken coops and rabbit hutches. “We’ve got Muscovy ducks on the way,” Beth mentions. “We didn’t use to have chickens, we brought them in because the kids wanted them.” The chickens are allowed to range on alternating days, so as to make sure that they all get pasture access and that the grass remains healthy. The students in turn sell the chickens’ eggs out of Beth’s classroom.
Next we move to another large outbuilding, which is used for storage and as a greenhouse for plant starts. Several flats of tomatoes and brassicas are sprouting and Beth explains that most of the veggies will be sold at the annual Ag Department plant sale. This is one of various ways that funds are raised for the ag program and a crucial step in students learning how to grow their own food. Another element of that food foundation is fostered by the Boer goat herd. We walk out to the pasture where baby goats abound, some nursing from their mothers and some eagerly running up to us for a bottle. “Kids really like kidding season, they get to see births, help out with the births. In the winter, they learn how to make Christmas wreaths. Valentines’ Day we sell flowers. Some kids really like taking an animal to the fair, some kids really like building up their personal skills and speaking in public. If we make money that’s a bonus, but the animals are really here as teaching tools.”
On the topic of money, Beth explains that the department’s funding comes from the District, which supports her salary as teacher and farm manager. Unfortunately, the grant that allowed Charlene Rowland to work with students in the garden was recently cut. “The department gets the Agricultural Incentive Grant, but we’re not sure what’s happening next year. Governor Brown has left it out of the State’s budget. Losing the grant would mean losing about $9,000 in operating funds. If anyone wants to know more they can contact me because we need people contacting our representatives to put pressure on Governor Brown. We get local donations and we do fundraising to pay for trips, for equipment, to pay for just about everything.”
Field trips are an important part of Beth’s agricultural curriculum. It is certainly a bonus for her that Anderson Valley and surrounding areas are awash in agricultural events. “In the fall, we went to the heirloom festival in Santa Rosa. Kids loved that. On Friday they went to the Natural Resources career day in Ukiah. There’s always something going on here. Trip here, meeting there, FFA here. We help set up for the AV Food Bank every month,” she explains. “Saturday we have a North Coast Regional FFA meeting. This time it’s in Covelo. The region goes from Crescent City to Brentwood/Rio Vista. FFA chapters from all those areas get together and have a regional meeting. In April we’ll be going to the CA State FFA Leadership conference and there will be four or five thousand FFA members there. We have five students going, two as voting delegates. We spend the day in Yosemite on Saturday, then we spend the rest of the 4 days at the conference. [There are] inspirational speeches, awards given out, tours they can take, college and career advice, [and] a concert. Delegates will be doing delegate business, reporting back to smaller groups, voting for amendments to the FFA constitution, [and] selecting the new state officers for next year.”
As the school’s FFA advisor, Beth speaks voluminously about the Future Farmers of America program. FFA is a leadership organization for students in agriculture education classes. “If you’re in one of my ag classes, you’re in FFA,” she explains. “The FFA Mission is to make a positive difference in the lives of students by developing their potential for premier leadership, personal growth and career success through agricultural education. I’m not under an illusion that all these kids will go into agriculture. [But] it’s not just farming, there’s so many other ways to be in agriculture.” This year, Beth has about fifty students in her Boonville-Anderson Valley FFA chapter. Some students have been in ag classes for four years and some are first-timers. When I ask her about the effect of FFA on students’ success, Beth lights up. “Right now, there is a student who graduated in ’05 and he’s teaching agriculture over at Kelseyville High School. I have another student who is over at Fresno State and he’s taking courses in ag science. I have students that come up to me and say, ‘I remember when we grew those gardens in junior high!’ Maybe they don’t have a career right away in agriculture, but they use things they learned here. ‘You showed me how to make a resume.’ Just things that kids need to survive, anybody needs to survive.”
Although many AVHS students come from families involved with agriculture – they may work in the vineyards or the orchards – many of Beth’s students don’t live on a farm. “The kids that go to the Fair are more serious. About 10 kids will take animals to the Fair,” she says. She advises on where to buy the pig, for instance, what to look for in terms of conformation, what to feed it. This year, students will be taking lambs, goats, meat chickens, meat rabbits, and pigs to the Fair. “The students keep their money from the animals they sell at the Fair. What are kids motivated by? They are motivated by money. And that’s what agriculture is, it’s science and it’s a business.” It’s clear that few understand this better than Beth, who is involved with teaching the scientific aspects in her agriculture biology class as well as keeping the farm going with her fundraising efforts.
When I ask Beth what her favorite part of her job is she responds without hesitation. “I like being outside with the students and working on projects. Doing the hands-on things with the kids. I also like to see the kids succeed. ‘Oh that’s how that happens’, that’s how babies are born. Wow.’”
Not only do AVHS students get to see how babies are born, they get lifelong lessons in how to grow and sustain themselves off the land. They learn the responsibilities of caring for livestock and tending to a garden. Kids today are growing up fast, with instant access to almost anything, but educators like Beth and her three-legged friend remind us that the best food is slow, and the lessons learned on the farm can arm us with strength for any situation.
For more information or to volunteer, Beth Swehla can be contacted in her classroom at 895-2514, or by email at email@example.com.
(The next AV Foodshed’s Connecting With Local Food series will bring you an article featuring Shelly Englert and Jay Newcomer, their family, and homestead. For all previous articles please go to www.mendocinolocalfood.org. To be added to the AV Foodshed mailing list or to contact us send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.)