Ag-Venture campers dive ‘head first’ into agriculture, natural resources

Ag-Venture campers dive ‘head first’ into agriculture, natural resources

UC Cooperative Extension team in Sutter and Yuba counties showcases UC ANR programs, community partners

When dozens of elementary schoolers gathered to watch a live calf birth at Tollcrest Dairy in Yuba County, their comments ranged from “disgusting but cool” to “I saw something that maybe I'm too young to see.”

Expanding horizons, growing knowledge and gently pushing some limits were at the heart of a four-week day camp, Ag-Venture, organized by the University of California Cooperative Extension office serving Sutter and Yuba counties.

Throughout July, more than 80 campers – ages 5 through 12 – explored agriculture and science topics through field trips across the region, hands-on activities and lively presentations by UCCE advisors, UC Master Gardeners, 4-H specialists, UC Master Food Preservers and CalFresh Healthy Living, UC educators. All these groups fall under the umbrella of UC Agriculture and Natural Resources.

A grant from The Center at Sierra Health Foundation funded this day camp for underserved youth focused on agriculture and natural resources – the first of its kind in the area. Exploring the themes of “Interesting Insects,” “Foods and Farms,” “Woods and Water” and “Awesome Animals,” the campers learned directly from community experts and UC ANR scientists.

“Some of the kids might think scientists are only wearing lab coats and working with genetics and DNA and human-based science, but here they got to see agricultural scientists and natural scientists,” said Rayna Barden, the 4-H community education specialist who led the camp. “It was a cool way to showcase what ANR does and what we have to offer.”

Youth gain wide range of experiences, knowledge

Visits to local farms and ranches – with many chances to greet the animals – were a highlight for many of the camp participants.

“I liked learning about agriculture and the interactive activities,” said a fourth grader. “I saw a baby cow coming out of its mama, and they [farm staff] had to use a tool. It was cool.”

A sixth grader said: “I learned that feed is made up of everyday items, like almond shells and beer hops!”

“Sheep, cows and goats have one stomach and four chambers,” added another sixth grader.

That digestive tidbit was absorbed by the campers after a visit with UCCE livestock and natural resources advisor Dan Macon at Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center, a facility operated by UC ANR in Browns Valley.

“We have 4-H kids and FFA kids in high school who still don't know how the four chambers work!” Barden said. “These kids had it and it was so cool to see that they remembered that from a previous day.”

Time and time again, Barden said she was amazed at how much the campers retained. After a visit to Bullards Bar Reservoir, a seven-year-old was able to explain why the dam is curved. Another young boy could draw his own interpretation of the water cycle. And several campers talked about the rice presentation for weeks.

Whitney Brim-DeForest, UCCE county director for Sutter and Yuba counties and a rice advisor, had the participants touch and feel different rice seeds and varieties. The campers also got to plant a few rice seeds to take home.

“But their favorite part – and what they talked about for the rest of camp – was the tadpole shrimp,” Brim-DeForest said. “We brought some live and preserved specimens, and they loved them!”

Sparking ideas for future careers

One third-grade camper said she enjoyed learning the differences between agricultural pests and beneficial insects.

“And you can do stuff to help the good bugs,” she said, adding that she would like to pursue a career working with animals and nature.

Expanding awareness among young people of new career possibilities was exciting for Ricky Satomi, UCCE forestry and natural resources advisor for Sutter and Yuba counties. Using interactive exercises (such as those developed by California Project Learning Tree, another UC ANR-affiliated program), Satomi shared his knowledge about resource competition, watershed filtration and fire behavior in forest ecosystems. 

“It's always a pleasure to introduce students to the natural resources where they live,” Satomi said. “This is particularly critical given the current workforce shortage we face in forestry; I hope their experience at Ag-Venture will spark interest in future forestry careers, where these students can work to better their local forest communities.”

Young people from local colleges and universities also gained invaluable experience during the camp. Four students helped prepare the camp: Yasmeen Castro Guillen (Chico State), Alana Logie (Yuba College), Jayla Pollard (Folsom Lake College) and Adam Yandel (Chico State). Three more helped lead the camp as counselors: Hector Amezcua (Yuba College), Alyssa Nott (Butte College) and Jillian Ruiz (Chico State).

“They did such a fantastic job, mentoring the kids and serving as positive role models, and we have seen tremendous growth in all of them, too – in confidence, skills and knowledge,” said Brim-DeForest.

A true community effort

Barden emphasized that the sweeping scope and in-depth, intertwining lessons of the camp were only possible through broad support from the greater community. Brim-DeForest highlighted the partnership with Yuba City Unified School District, as well as with Sutter County. Camp HQ was in Ettl Hall, a Sutter County building; campers visited the Sutter County Museum; they also met Yuba-Sutter public health officer Dr. Phuong Luu.

Additional collaborators included Melissa Ussery, CalFresh Healthy Living, UC nutrition program supervisor; Rene McCrory, 4-H secretary; Johnny Yang, UC Master Gardener and Master Food Preserver program coordinator; Matt Rodriguez, 4-H youth development advisor; and Nicole Marshall-Wheeler, 4-H youth development advisor.

“Honestly, we could plan all of this, but without the community's support, our program never would have worked smoothly,” said Barden, who grew up in the small town of Sutter. “Having all of our guest speakers, having all the people who were willing to have up to 50 kids on their property – it just shows how much our community is about our youth.”

Brim-DeForest said Sandy Parker, the camp nurse, exemplifies that spirit. A UC Master Gardener and 4-H alumna and volunteer, Parker also invited the campers to her family ranch, where she introduced the children to her farm animals and Great Pyrenees guardian dog. 

The campers certainly appreciated the generosity, teamwork and energy that went into Ag-Venture. Barden said that many of the participants originally had only signed up for one or two weeks – but loved the camp so much that they asked to register for more. And she added that the “vast majority” of them said they want Ag-Venture to come back and would attend in the future.

“Our youth are just so resilient and so willing to learn,” Barden said, reflecting on the camp overall. “Whereas adults, we're usually a little more timid at things, these kids just were willing to dive in, head first, and be in that moment and try to take away as much as they could from what they were offered there at camp.”