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New Mexico State University

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Teens Grow at State's First Hispanic Learning Farm

SANTA ROSA - After graduating from Santa Rosa High School last spring, Melissa Chavez spent part of her summer vacation pulling weeds, tilling fields and planting crops at a small farm that she and other students helped establish during the school year.

Alice Velasquez, left, FFA coordinator and agricultural educator at Santa Rosa High School, examines chile with Rosita López, one of the teenagers helping out at the Ben Baca Hispanic Learning Center. The late Ben Baca asked NMSU's Cooperative Extension Service in Guadalupe County to turn part of his 25-acre farm, located next to the high school, into a living classroom for youth to learn about agriculture. (10/10/2005) (NMSU Agricultural Communications Photo by J. Victor Espinoza)

"I want to study horticulture, so it's like getting an early start on my career," Chavez said. "I've learned a lot about plants and growing at the farm. It's so much fun."

Chavez is one of dozens of students learning about agriculture firsthand at the Ben Baca Hispanic Learning Center, a small farm next to the high school that New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service has converted into a living classroom.

Before his death in February 2004, Santa Rosa resident Ben Baca asked NMSU to turn part of his 25-acre farm into a learning center for local youth, said Gino Lujan, Extension agricultural agent in Guadalupe County.

"Baca wanted to promote a love of agriculture among kids here," Lujan said. "This community is still centered on farming, but these days, after youngsters leave home, few come back. By working at the farm, students can learn about where their food comes from and maybe get some exposure to good nutrition and the benefits of healthy rural living."

The Baca family still owns the land. They grow wine grapes and alfalfa and maintain about 1,000 apple trees.

"By letting students use the farm, my father hoped to keep all of the land productive and give something back to the community," said Baca's daughter, Nancy. "The learning center is a way to keep the memory of my father and his love of agriculture alive."

The students began working on the farm in fall 2004. They pulled weeds and planted a few rows of squash. They also harvested and sold apples for about $200.

"We we're just trying to clean things up last year to get the farm ready for planting," Chavez said. "We did a lot of planting this year. We started from scratch, and now it's gotten so big it's surprised everyone."

The students started about 2,500 chile plants and 140 tomato plants at the high school greenhouse with help from Alice Velasquez, an agricultural educator and FFA coordinator. They transplanted the chile and tomatoes to the farm this spring, and they used seeds to plant about four acres of corn, pumpkins, cantaloupe, watermelon, squash, zucchini, cucumbers and herbs.

FFA members helped tend the garden during summer. With the fall semester under way, students are now harvesting the produce for sale to a local supermarket and to individual customers.

"If you're going to run a farm someday, this is the way to learn how to do it," said Michael Tenorio, a sophomore in Velasquez's agriculture class who helps on the farm. "I'm still considering my career options, and studying agriculture is a possibility."

Through the farm, Lujan, Velazquez and other teachers at Santa Rosa High hope to interest students in careers in science and agriculture.

"The farm allows kids to get out of the classroom and experience hands-on learning," Velazquez said. "They can develop some marketable skills here, and maybe some will want to continue studying after high school."

Karl Agar, who runs the high school's Math, Engineering and Science Achievement program, is also helping students design and build a livestock barn.

"This gives students a chance to do something real," Agar said. "At the farm, they can apply what they learn in class."

The farm is open to all, but the majority of participating students are Hispanics who come from Spanish-speaking households, Lujan said.

"Most of our students are from Hispanic families whose local roots date back generations," Lujan said. "This area is rich in Hispanic culture and tradition. We want to reinforce these kids' ties to the land and hopefully encourage pride in their cultural heritage."

About 82 percent of county residents are Hispanic, according to the 2000 U.S. Census. But few students go to college, and only 6 percent of the county population has any graduate-level college education.

"These kids need a lot of encouragement to continue studying," Velasquez said. "The farm offers a nontraditional experience that helps get them excited about learning."

Future plans include farm tours for elementary and middle school children. Lujan will also use it as a demonstration farm for local producers, and Extension nutrition educator Leigh Anne Marez will use fresh farm vegetables for nutrition classes.

Extension received about $20,000 in grants and donated materials for the farm from Eastern New Mexico Rural Plateau Telephone, the McCune Foundation, Farmers Electric and the county commission. As crops grow, Lujan expects annual harvests to eventually earn $15,000 or more, making the learning center self-supporting.

Some proceeds will fund summer jobs for students. In fact, Chavez earned some money at the farm this summer, and in September she began studying agronomy and horticulture at NMSU. Extension also hired Whitney Meairs -? a 2004 graduate from Santa Rosa High ?- to care for the farm full time during the summer.

"It was my first job," Meairs said. "I learned a lot about farming, but most of all I learned to take care of things on my own. Having responsibility teaches you to do things because they need to be done, not just because somebody told you to."