ON a dirt road through flat farmland in California's Sacramento Valley, a school bus comes to a stop and unloads two dozen adults. The group crowds close to a man wading knee-deep in the adjacent rice fields.
"We can have our environment and eat it too," says Allen Garcia, a farmer who has grown rice here for 20 years. "Two decades ago, we couldn't grow anything at all here because of the alkali in the soil. But by managing it properly, we can now generate enough rice here to feed 125,000 Americans for one year."
After 45 minutes of talks by Mr. Garcia and two other farmers, the group boards the bus and is off. Several days of such stops will include tours of wheat, almond, and dairy farms; visits with state legislators and agricultural experts; and tours of farm production facilities.
The group comprises teachers from area schools in three counties: Tehama, Butte, and Glenn. They are taking part in a California program designed to inform educators about the crucial role of farming in the state that produces half the fruits and vegetables grown in the United States. The program began in 1984 but has gained momentum in recent seasons as the state's six-year drought has brought water and environmental issues to the fore in heated legislative battles.
"The state has recognized that as generations of Americans have moved off the farm, people no longer understand where their food and clothing comes from," says Mary Ann Warmerdam, director of natural resources for the California Farm Bureau Federation (CFBF) here. In colonial days, she says, 98 percent of the US population lived on farms. The figure is now 2 percent.
"What people see in the grocery produce section is the end result of a complex system they know nothing about," adds Ms. Warmerdam.
The tri-county teacher-education program is part of a state program, the Summer Agriculture Institute. Co-sponsored by the CFBF and the California Foundation for Agriculture in the Classroom, the institute chooses 30 educators each year from all grade levels (kindergarten through college) to participate in five days of seminars, classes, and tours - including an aerial scan of California and an overnight stay with a farm family. The institute has graduated 270 people in eight years, and demand is increas ing.
A heightened understanding of farm issues has never been more urgent, according to observers. Farmers in the state's gigantic Central Valley are buffeted by growing suburban development that is consuming 50,000 acres of farmland a year. Development also brings smog levels that reduce farm yields by 20 percent and create demands for more controls on herbicides, pesticides, water, and even farming hours.
"I was not aware of the crucial ag [agricultural] issues that are currently before the government," says Marianne Grossgold, a seminar student from Mariposa County. "I was also not aware of how extremely strict our Food and Agriculture [Department] guidelines are."
The program is helping to change such ignorance.
"At the beginning, I would have classified myself as an environmentalist with the image of the farmer as `polluting the environment with pesticides,' " says Cam Weldon, a 1989 participant in the program from Sacramento County. "The institute has turned me around 180 degrees, enabling me to look at the issues from a [more] realistic standpoint, from the farmers' concerns."
Not surprisingly, rice farmer Garcia has his own reasons for participating in the program. California rice farmers have been vilified in the state press in recent years for flooding rice fields at the expense of salmon runs as well as the needs of industrial and urban water users. He lists several little-known facts about rice: It takes 30 gallons of water to produce one serving of rice, while 2,600 gallons are needed to produce a serving of beef.
"I always thought rice was one of the biggest wasters of water because the whole field needs to stay flooded," says Mary Arbuckle, a second-grade teacher from Murdock Elementary in Willows who participated in the tri-county program. "What I found out is that it is one of the most efficient forms of crop there is," she says.
By reaching educators, the program wants to cast a bigger net by introducing agricultural agendas into the classroom. Besides tromping through wheat fields, riding tractors, and feeding animals, Ms. Arbuckle was given "a whole crate of pamphlets" with lesson plans, field trip ideas, and ways to incorporate agricultural themes into existing math, science, and reading programs (see story at left).
Debbie Stroh, who directs the state program, says eight-years' worth of graduates are building a statewide resource - from serving on local committees to advising new curriculum changes to testifying before legislative bodies. Besides a quarterly newsletter called "Grad Review," the group meets once a year to discuss ways to further understanding of the pressures on farmers.
"This thing just continues to build," she says of the nonprofit foundation, which has a growing list of supporters from individual farmers to businessmen and CFBF members.
"The program is so effective because it is hands-on instead of academic," she adds. "Participants get a personal feel for what is great about the country that once fed the world."