After three years of planning and plotting, the Turlock Unified School District finally decided to purchase a 10-acre parcel near East Taylor and Berkeley in Turlock to house farm animals, and provide agricultural field education for local students.
Despite Turlock’s rich agricultural region, finding a location for Pitman and Turlock high students to conduct agricultural studies and house their animals proved to be difficult.
“We found plenty of properties that would have been great, but we tried to get a location that was in between each school,” said TUSD Superintendent Sonny Da Marto. “It needed to be somewhere that wasn’t too far away, and where the kids could get there safely. This property is closer to our needs than any other we’ve seen.”
Da Marto wanted to start the program after hearing from the California School Boards Association that Golden Bell Awards were given out for schools that have ag farms available.
TUSD Board President Bob Weaver, Da Marto, local farmers, and ag teachers were further interested in the project, and conversed with Assistant Superintendent Mark Trainor to form a subcommittee to look for local properties.
De Marto asked the board to set aside $500,000 in one-time use capital funds to acquire a farm. It was Trainor who found the property, and decided that it was time to invest their interests.
Though the board was interested in the farm, there was concern about the cost of a farm caretaker.
“We needed some kind of a person to be the caretaker or manager of the farm. It would be a small, little farm, and more like a part time job,” said Da Marto.
In response, Scott Soiseth, director of child nutrition, offered a plan of his own that would further engage the use of the land, but also pay for its maintenance.
“Scott had said this would be great for child nutrition services and revive products off our own farm and to teach children about healthy eating and living,” said Da Marto. “Through that, he would be able to help with the cost of a caretaker. He’s prepared to do that, and he has put in for a $100,000 grant. Until we had the property, we didn’t stand much a chance of getting that.”
The District also plans to utilize the farm as a field trip center for elementary students to get them excited about agriculture at a young age.
“We are excited about what this parcel will bring to the district,” said Da Marto. “This isn’t just something for people in ag to get excited about. This is for the community, and we hope to see a lot of participation."
Along with enthusiasm for the farm, has come concerns over the project's longtime costs to the District.
“No doubt, it is a great idea,” said Harinder Grewal. “But I never saw a business plan. At this time, it is not clear what the goals are. I need to know why we should invest half a million without seeing a plan. I respect that you believe in this, but it is simply bad timing.”
Trainor said the property had to come first, in order to put together a detailed plan. Trustee Frank Lima agreed with both viewpoints, and fought over middle ground.
“I agree that we must be mindful of our budget,” said Lima. “If this land becomes a burden on the District, then I’ll be the first to say ‘Let’s sell it,’ but we have to see if it can be beneficial.”
The subcommittee members said that if any town can come together to finish a project, Turlock would be the town.
“I think people would like to lend us a hand. We need the money, certainly, but the time and the energy and the expertise would be more valuable than the money,” said De Marto.