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Ballico nature, farming reaches out to Palo Alto

The San Joaquin Valley is real place — not some distant land without connections to the Bay Area.

This is what high school students from Palo Alto learned Friday at an organic dairy near the Merced River in Ballico. Sally and Charles Magneson opened up their land for a fifth year to urban young people learning about how nature and farming in rural areas relate to their every-day lives.

“There are lot of problems I didn’t realize,” said student Peter Gallagher, 15. “Salmon, where we get our drinking water — it’s good to educate yourself.”

The program is called TEAM (Together Everyone Achieves More), and Palo Alto High School freshman sign up to be chosen for it, explained John Mitchell, a retired math teacher and a third-generation Livingston farmer.

Mitchell joked once in Palo Alto that teachers should bring students out to his Livingston farm to pull weeds. With help from the Magnesons and other organizers, this joke turned into a series of educational field trips.

Students follow a regular — but enhanced — school curriculum with trips to Yosemite National Park, wetlands, beaches and the Central Valley to learn about ecosystems, land use and history.

“We have this running theme that everything is connected,” said Denise Shaw, a Palo Alto English teacher associated with the TEAM program. “They saw the Merced River in Yosemite in November. Now they are seeing it here.”

The Magnesons offered several different learning stations on their land. Some students learned the ins and outs of a dairy farm. Others took a short hike down to the Merced River.

There on the banks, East Merced Resource Conservation District representatives Cindy Lashbrook and Cathy Weber explained the watershed and life-cycle of the salmon that used to crowd the river. Now the fishes’ numbers are dwindling.

“I heard they used to be so abundant, you could practically walk across them in the river,” said Pearl Glaves, a parent of Palo Alto freshman who volunteered for a second year to come along on the field trip. “It’s so informative — it’s a whole other world out here.”

While students appeared familiar with the salmon situation and the sources of their own drinking water, Lashbrook was met with silent stares when she asked “what is a watershed?”

“Basically, it’s all the area of land that drains into a water source,” she explained.

The students then participated in an exercise to study how salmon smell their way into different rivers, such as the San Joaquin, Merced and Tuolumne.

They made their way back to the barn soon after that, where another group of ninth graders stood near a bunch of wide-eyed, 3-month-old Holstein calves. There they listened to the Magneson’s son, Scott, talk about dairy farming.

“I had no idea that organic farming was so hard,” said freshman Hannah Ohlson, 14. “It’s pretty cool.”

Students learned about the retail end of farming and how cows are raised from newborn calves that drink milk from a bucket to milk cows standing in the stanchions to be milked.

The teens who rode a bus from Palo Alto had, for the most part, never been on a farm before. They were amazed to learn how much work goes into getting milk from the cow to the grocery store.

The 500-acre dairy they visited has been a farm for more than 100 years. The Magnesons used the land since 1949, and have made sure the farm will never be developed.

The river bottom land making up the farm was put into an easement that will always keep the land in agriculture. “The trust (that the land is in) takes the rights of the land so no development can be done — forever,” Charles Magneson said.

Along with a tour of the milk barn, calf barn and the area where milk cows hang out, the students also got a lesson about how farmers market their wares.

It wasn’t just students who learned from the field trip. One of their parents, Mary Dougherty, said although she often buys organic food for her family, she never realized the work that went into it.

“I thought that organic milk meant that the cows didn’t get hormones,” she said.

Both Dougherty and the students learned that going organic takes three years, and that cows must be fed organically-grown feeds, and must spend time at grass.

“These kids have absolutely learned a lot today,” Dougherty said.

Reporter Dhyana Levey can be reached at (209) 385-2472 or Carol Reiter can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or