Picture busloads of Bay Area schoolchildren heading along Highway 99 toward a museum that explains what happens on the farms they're passing.
That's the vision for the Ag Science Center, which has been planned for the west campus of Modesto Junior College for more than a decade.
The vision could become reality sooner than expected, thanks to a drop in the estimated cost from $23 million to $18 million.
As with many construction projects, the recession is the reason, project director Michele Laverty said. About $4 million has been raised, but a big fund-raising push could allow construction to start in 18 to 24 months, she said.
Laverty and other leaders in the effort provided an update to about 75 supporters at a Thursday gathering near Salida.
They saw updated sketches for a center that would use high-tech displays to show how farmers produce food.
One display, for example, invites people to walk through an imaginary mag- nifying glass to see huge images of what's in the soil.
"We have to provide them with an environment that's 'Oh, my God, that's not what I expected!' " principal designer Scott Sinclair said.
The primary audience would be middle-school students, including some from urban areas. But high school students and families that might make return visits on weekends also are a target.
Visitors would learn about planting, irrigation, soil, pollination, pests, harvesting, transportation and food safety, among other topics.
One goal is to encourage young people to study for ag-related careers, which can range from growing crops to designing wine labels to keeping the books at an ag-related company.
Ag focus at MJC
The center will be part of the emerging cluster of ag- related buildings on the west campus. The cluster includes livestock areas, student housing, and a pavilion for classes and events, all being built with Measure E bond money.
Charlene McLauchlan, a veterinarian who serves on the project's board, said the center could enlighten voters. She cited last year's passage of state Proposition 2, which set rules on housing for laying hens that the egg industry said were unwarranted.
"We have to educate even the people who aren't going into agriculture about where their food comes from and the importance of a healthy agricultural sector in the United States," she said.
Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2385.