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Connolly Ranch launches new farming education program, spreads the seed of environmental stewardship

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Connolly Ranch Education Center has just launched its most recent program, teaching environmentally-minded children about the benefits of rotational grazing on a farm. By replanting a portion of its property to grow feed for the various animals on the farm, Connolly Ranch will not only be teaching the next generation, but also will be improving its soil and cutting down on dry goods costs.

Since hosting its first field trip in 1993, Connolly Ranch has been connecting local children with nature through programming based on gardening, the care of animals and how to conserve resources, and staff are looking forward to this new addition to the farm.

“We really try to make sure our sustainable practices are brought to life at the farm,” said co-executive director, Heidi Soldinger. “So Jessica is creating a curriculum so the kids are becoming environmental stewards and they are investing and understanding through hands-on experience.”

In the case of rotational grazing, the kids were able to help Farm Coordinator Jessica Eutsler and the rest of the Connolly Ranch staff seed the recently-tilled plot.

And with programs targeting different age groups – from the pre-K Explorers program to hosting high school FFA interns – Eutsler is constantly adapting to the curiosity of her students.

“We did the younger age, so the pre-kindergarten, and they were excited,” she said. “It is a little bit more all over the place, but it is still fun because they still understand what is happening.”

“From there we can talk about something as basic as ‘What is a seed?’ 'How does it grow?’ and then for the older kids, we are talking about the different types of seeds and why we chose that,” said Eutsler. “We also talk about how we have goats, sheep and pigs that will be grazing together, and then we have a miniature horse and two donkeys.”

The plot will be broken up into distinct sections, so the kids will be able to clearly see the different areas and how their growth differs as the animals start grazing and as different plots “rest.” Similarly, each animal has a different grazing style, lending itself to some fun mealtime observations.

In addition, students also will learn about the environmental benefits of feeding the animals in this way, as the rotational nature allows each plot to grow back before being munched on again.

“Not only are there benefits for the land and making healthy soil, but also for our sustainability economically,” said Soldinger. “When we were thinking about it and making an investment, this makes so much more sense [than buying feed] and we can teach the kids along the whole way … For the kids, this is an outdoor living classroom, and they get to see it along the process.”

Kevin Giselbach, facilities coordinator at Connolly Ranch, said it is neat to watch the kids process what is going on during each stage, as he estimates 99 percent of their students don’t have any sizable acreage at their homes.

“They watched me tear the field up, now they are seeding it, and they are going to be here to see the whole process,” he said.

Eutsler says it will be a bit of an experiment to see how well the first round of sprouts come through – patches are expected – but estimated that within a year, her combination seed of wheat grass, rye and alfalfa will have beaten out the competing weeds and other existing plants.

Learn more about Connolly Ranch and its farming education programs at connollyranch.org

Sterling has been closed to the public since the Glass Fire, but staff saw this was an opportunity to give back to the first responders keeping our community safe.

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You can reach Sam Jones at 707-256-2221 and sjones@napanews.com

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Napa Valley wine industry reporter

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