There are 50 of them. They’re no more than four feet tall, a little sweaty from time spent in the sun, and they are ecstatic. They’ve just been let loose in a citrus orchard, and after what feels like hours of waiting, they are finally allowed to pick three pieces of fruit to eat. One runs by me chanting, “Tangerines, tangerines, tangerines!” Another yells to a friend, “It would be so fun to work here!” as a third charges up to his teacher squealing with delight at the three lemons he has selected.
The setting? A field trip to Limoneira in Santa Paula. The players? A group of third graders from EARTHS Magnet School in Thousand Oaks. Their mission? To learn more about where their food comes from by experiencing firsthand the journey of a lemon from farm to table.
And at the helm of all this controlled chaos and hands-on learning is Mary Maranville—founder of the nonprofit Students for Eco-Education and Agriculture (SEE AG), coordinator of the Ventura County Agricultural Education Program, and board member of Food for Thought: the Ojai Healthy Schools Program. A lovely woman with fierce blue eyes and sun-kissed blond hair, Mary appears to be the epitome of a person doing what they were meant to do. As I spend the morning watching her interact with these children, her giddiness about what she does shines through in every sentence she utters and every question she asks. Effervescent with passion and energy, she is a wonder to watch.
Yet, what she is trying to do is actually very simple: teach elementary school children where their food comes from. When they sit down to the dinner table at night, she wants them to see their food differently than they did before. “I want them to know that it came from dirt, that it came from the land...and that it takes a lot of time and energy, patience, and diligence, to get that food to us,” she says.
Mary’s program (an offshoot of the San Luis Obispo County Office of Education) is built on two components: classroom presentations where students learn about agriculture in Ventura County, and field trips to Limoneira, where they can see, feel, hear, and taste what goes on at a working ranch. During the 2011-2012 school year, she saw approximately 2,500 kids in the classroom and 2,300 on her field trip excursions. Her program draws students from Oxnard to Oak Park, Fillmore to Port Hueneme. “It sounds like a huge amount,” she says, “but I want to do more.”
But for now, her scope is limited, because behind this program, well, it’s really just Mary. Her workday starts at 7 a.m., and she often works more than 60 hours a week. But her work just seems energize her more. “When you show kids a piece of broccoli and they get excited...how can you not get excited?” she asks me as we wander through a stand of orange trees moments before the school bus arrives, bursting with excited third graders.
The seeds of Mary’s passion were planted long ago and more than 2,000 miles away, during a childhood spent on a dairy farm in upstate New York. “My father loved farming, and now I know why. I think of him every single day when I’m doing this job. His father did it and his grandfather did it. It’s just a family thing,” she says.
But it wasn’t until after a twelve-year career in the cycling industry, at a time when she was looking for a fresh start, that Mary decided she wanted to do something in the way of agriculture. She started by going into the classrooms, but quickly realized that in order to make a real difference, she needed to bring the kids to the farm. “You’d be surprised,” she says, “that most kids don’t know that a carrot is a root.” She approached Limoneira and, after a short while, a partnership was formed.
John Chamberlain, the marketing director of Limoneira, says that it was Mary’s entrepreneurial spirit that drew them to her. “She created her own program; she didn’t wait around for someone else to do it. She has a can-do attitude, a true passion for her work, and we like that,” he says.
Rachel Meyer—a friend, fellow educator, and SEE AG board member—sees what she does as going well beyond teaching kids where their food comes from; it also helps them see the importance of agriculture to our society. “Mary sees the value of agriculture workers in Ventura County. She wants to elevate them in her students’ eyes, wants them to see it as cool. She’s planting the seed in their minds that this could be a potential career.”
And for those students whose families currently work in agriculture, Mary wants to instill in them a sense of pride in what their parents do. As a child, Mary recalls feeling self-conscious about being the daughter of a dairy farmer. “I wish that when I was little someone had come to my school and said ‘Dairy farmers rule!’” she laughs.
Looking ahead, Mary hopes to find funding to add a program she calls Careers in Agriculture, where she plans to teach students about the wealth of opportunities in the field. She wants to educate them about the jobs available—from working as a water irrigation specialist, to farm operations manager, to getting a job with the USDA.
After these fieldtrips, Mary receives handwritten notes from most of her students. Some are written in cursive, all are written in pencil. Some students write about the fun of wearing a hairnet inside the packing plant, or the sheep that munch the weeds around Limoneira’s solar panels. Others remember the symphony of motion and sound that is the conveyer belts driving lemons through the packing plant; and of course, most mention the fresh squeezed lemonade served at the end of the morning.
But as I read through those stacks of letters at the end of the day, after the last child has climbed back into the school bus, it is apparent that what most have taken away is a new sense of excitement about food, about the process of getting it from the farm to the store and to the table. No longer does a lemon come from the local market. In their minds it now comes from that lemon tree at Limoneira, a tree that they touched and whose blossoms they smelled.
Not surprisingly, these letters have become a source of pride for Mary, evidence that she is on the right track. Her face illuminates as she shows them to me; and then Mary, who doesn’t have children of her own, looks at me and says, “Now I feel like I have thousands of children... The mother in me is loving this as well.”