Melissa Dennis | Ohlone Elementary

As third-graders gathered outside Ohlone Elementary School, farm manager Rich Uto asked: “Are you ready to plant some strawberries?”

The enthusiastic response left no doubt. These students were excited to visit Giant Berry Farms’ latest field to go from conventional farming to certified organic.

Teacher Melissa Dennis led the short walk across the street to the strawberry field. After Uto demonstrated proper planting techniques, the students began planting several rows at the corner of Salinas Road and Bay Farm Road in the north end of Monterey County. As Uto told them, “This will always be the Ohlone corner of the farm.”

Statewide Buffer Zone

This field trip came exactly two weeks after the California Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) issued a ruling creating a statewide buffer zone around schools. Effective January 1, 2018, farmers cannot apply pesticides from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday on any fields within a quarter-mile of K-12 schools and licensed day care facilities.

But, according to Giant Vice President of Marketing Cindy Jewell, the company is “transitioning ground to organic where we can… The challenge we have is that we can only transition ground that we actually own. In areas where we rent land, we are unable to make the long-term commitment without control of the ground.”

In order to qualify for the “organic” designation from California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF), fields must be left fallow for three years during the transition from conventional to organic farming. Jewell said Giant uses a combination of organic and conventional farms in the Pajaro Valley, Santa Maria and Oxnard to meet the national demand for fresh berries.

“We have moved our farmland away from sensitive areas in those regions or transitioned to organic where possible,” she said.

Pesticides’ Effect on Children

Teachers like Melissa Dennis see the effect of pesticides on students, many of whom are the children of farmworkers.

In California, Hispanic students are 91 percent more likely to attend schools with higher exposure to agricultural pesticides, according to a study by the California Department of Health.

In 1999, six Latino parents – including parents of an Ohlone Elementary student – filed a complaint with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, alleging that agricultural pesticides were used more heavily around schools with high minority student populations. In 2011, the EPA issued its first finding of discrimination. As part of a settlement with DPR, an air monitor was placed at Ohlone Elementary School.

“We have an air monitor that measures one or more pesticides in the air, and we have found that the level frequently registers above what is safe for humans,” said Dennis, who is an active member of Safe Ag, Safe Schools (SASS).

“I got involved with the issue of pesticides near schools when I started noticing a lot of my children struggling with learning difficulties,” Dennis said. “A lot of students are also struggling with health issues like asthma, and there seems to be a higher percentage of students who have suffered from different types of cancer. It’s a topic of conversation that’s come up a lot between myself and my colleagues around the lunch table.”

Her third-grade students are often one to two grade levels behind where they should be with reading. They have trouble with math and remembering math processes, she added, noting the “vast number” of students with difficulties in her classroom.

“I’m concerned because we don’t have the resources to help all the students who need it,” Dennis said. “I can’t even say they have learning disabilities because a lot of students haven’t been diagnosed. There are not enough psychologists and resource specialists to assess all the students that need it.”

In the Fields

During the field trip, farm manager Uto asked how many students had parents who work in the strawberry fields. Most of the hands shot up.

Before the students returned to their classroom, Uto had one final surprise. He brought out buckets of dirt and a box of strawberry plants for students to take back to school. He also invited them to return in the spring when the “Ohlone corner” of the field is ready to pick.

In the meantime, the 15-acre plot directly across from the school will follow CCOF standards for organic farming.

“That’s going to give us a huge buffer zone of fresh air,” Dennis said.

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  • Melissa Dennis of Monterey County
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Returning to pick the strawberries...

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