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Nature, agriculture comes together for Heartland Event

LIVINGSTON — Hands deep in dirt and shovels ready to go — these workers knew why the manzanita, sycamore trees, yarrow and western redbud were worth a warm day on the farm.

The sweat they spent Friday at Riverdance Farms was all part of their science education. They weren’t ecologists or even farmers. But they understood the natural cycle they contributed to.

“It goes around and around,” said Susie Diego, 12, a sixth-grader. “We use water from the Merced River to grow the trees, and the trees produce oxygen.”

About 25 Snelling-Merced Falls Elementary School children from grades fourth through sixth planted native plants near the Merced River. These plants attract beneficial insects such as lady bugs and parasitic wasps that go after worms, said Cindy Lashbrook, who co-owns Riverdance Farms.A plant like yarrow attracts bugs that kill the caterpillars that eat the cherries and blueberries she grows on her organic farm.

“We’re showing (the students) how nature and farming comes together,” she said.

Lashbrook is getting her property ready for the ninth annual Heartland Event on May 31 and June 1. It will feature local produce, organic food, children’s activities, music and nature explorations.

The Snelling children who planted native plants on Lashbrook’s land also got a taste of the event’s favored activity — picking cherries and eating them right off the tree.

But they weren’t working that day to benefit the Heartland Event or even Lashbrook, said the children’s teacher Karen White.

“We’re helping surviving wildlife and ourselves,” she said. “The students recognize at their young age to be involved. I think when they are engaged they become more involved in the content, excited about the science material.”

To fourth-grader Hannia Ramirez, 10, her work on the farm meant protecting animals from their predators. She and her classmates planted native plants along a corridor so quails and rabbits could have a safe, covered path down to the river.

Lashbrook referred to her practices as “wildlife-friendly farming,” something not only organic farmers have embraced, but conventional farmers as well. However, she’s “gone organic” since 1989 on her 74-acre farm, home to blueberry bushes, three kinds of cherry trees, persimmons, pomegranates, walnuts and pecans.

She had farmed conventionally since 1987, using fertilizers and herbicides that she believed could be harmful.

“There were small children in the house, and when we sprayed I had to block all the windows to keep the stuff out,” Lashbrook said.

It takes three years of using no artificial pesticides or herbicides on a farm before it can be considered organic. It resulted in extra money going out to laborers, because the work includes a lot of hand weeding.

To get nutrients back into the soil, Lashbrook plants cover crops, such as clover or vetch, to disc back into the ground. The plants give the soil the boost that it needs to be productive. Lashbrook also uses weed cloth to keep weeds down naturally.

The less pesticides on her land, the less chance pesticides can make their way into the Merced River, which flows by her property.

And protecting the watershed is important, said Maddison Porter, 10, a fourth-grader. The watershed is the land area that drains into a body of water, a fact Porter and her classmates learned this year through their environmental education.

“All the stuff we are doing will help nature and the environment,” she said, placing a yarrow plant with little red flowers into the ground.

Lashbrook wants to help the environment by steering other growers and consumers to plant and buy organic. But sometimes organic is a tough sell to people who are looking for the perfect fruit.

“If consumers don’t want pesticides, they have to take some blemishes on their fruit,” she said, adding that the organically grown produce usually has more fiber and vitamins than conventionally grown fruit.

“The tree doesn’t produce as much fruit, so what it does produce is more concentrated,” she said. “I’d love to see more locally-grown product, and I think that eventually it will happen.”

If you go. ...WHAT: A 2008 Heartland EventWHEN: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. May 31, and 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. June 1. "Taste of the Valley" wine and bites of local food will be 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. May 31. WHERE: Riverdance Farms, 12230 Livingston Cressy Road, LivingstonCOST: $10 for adults, $5 for children, $10 for camping on May 31. Admission to "Taste of the Valley" is $20. Adults get in for $5 and children get in free on June 1. For more information go to e-mail or call Kat at (209) 620-0006, Anna at (831) 594-5638 or Cindy at (209) 761-0081.