By Nancy Gutierrez

In a section of land on the west side of the Rocky Hill Elementary School campus little hands are busy weeding rows of onions and cauliflower on a crisp November morning.

Though the gardening had just begun there was already one tragedy as a third grader from Stan Dillon's class pulled an onion thinking it was a weed.

"Make sure you know the difference between the onions and weeds," Dillon said.

The students aren't going through a course on gardening or even being punished for something. The garden they are working on has been a tradition at Rocky Hill since the school was first built nine years ago. Built by Dillon himself, the garden is a tool provided by a program that incorporates agriculture into academics called ag in the classroom.

The California Foundation for Agriculture in the Classroom works with elementary and high school teachers, students, and community leaders, to enhance education using agricultural examples. Ag in the classroom offers school children the knowledge to make informed choices about agriculture and their environment.

That particular morning in the Rocky Hill life lab the students were soil testing the cauliflower and onion beds that hold their winter crop. The students learned about soil pH and the effect it has on their garden. PH, or potential of Hydrogen, is the degree of the soil's acid or base state. It can effect the availability of nutrients in the soil for plant use.

"If the soil is too acidic plants can't grow here," Dillon explained to his students.

The students measured some soil and mixed it with water and a solution from a soil testing kit. They then waited to see the results as the color of the water changed from clear to soft blue to a deep purple color, depicting a neutral soil.

"We use science and math in the garden," Dillon said. "That's why you have to study everything even US history."

The students are involved in every aspect of the garden from weeding to harvest. Along the way the students will monitor and map the growth of their product.

"They graph the growth of something they've made instead of just using a textbook," Dillon said. "It teaches them hands-on life skills."

The students have experienced the successes and discomforts of gardening and growing food. Dillon said hail destroyed their crop one year and the students lose plants to insect infestations. They also experience the hard work involved and are responsible for harvesting, processing and even packaging the vegetables.

"I like pulling out the weeds," eight-year-old Brandon Evers said. "And I know how to grow cauliflower now."

Elena Sandoval, 8, said the part she liked best was planting their crop. Some of the seeds they have used came from nurseries but students also germinated their own seeds in the life lab green house.

In addition to learning their academics through agriculture students have become philanthropists donating the food they have grown to schools and the Exeter Food Closet.

"We donated 200 lbs of carrots to the jr. high and high school," Dillon said. "The class decided to donate the cauliflower and broccoli crop to the Food Closet. They are always eager for fresh vegetables."

Dillon has participated in several programs that showed him what it takes to implement these types of activities in to the classroom. He is a graduate of the California Farm Bureau's Summer Agricultural Institute, a week-long fellowship that places participants on working farms to live and work. Dillon was also an advisor for the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, an organization that provides scholarships to students in the FFA and 4-H.

"In elementary school we don't really focus on agriculture. This is a farming community, it's important for the students to be exposed to agriculture," he said.

There are several teachers with classroom plots who utilize the garden as a hands-on teaching tool.

"Chances are these students will work in an ag related field," he said. "That's why teaching it is so important."

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