By Becky Hanks
Valley Women Writer
4:13 PM PDT, April 11, 2011
Like a pied piper of fiddles, Nancy Caywood-Robertson leads the room of children in a rousing, gourd-shaking song that leaves huge smiles on the students’ faces and helps them understand the tricky difference between vegetables and fruits.
Later, she climbs aboard a brilliant red tractor to pull a wagon full of kids around the green fields of radishes and other produce, illustrating the fruit-versus-vegetable mystery that all fruits contain seeds inside while veggies sprout their seeds from the top of the plant.
As educational outreach coordinator for the Farm Smart program located west of Holtville at University of California’s Desert Research and Extension Center (UC DREC), Caywood-Robertson has melded her childhood farming background with a love for teaching into a comprehensive educational program that touches the lives of more than 8,000 Imperial County students and 2,000 winter visitors in field trips to the farm near Holtville every year.
The program’s mission includes educating people of all ages about natural and renewable natural resources, including agriculture, in order to conserve and manage it for future generations.
In writing and designing the Farm Smart curriculum, Caywood-Robertson incorporates every aspect of her life that has steered her to this point. Her love of fiddling and music is utilized to grab the kids’ attention through catchy tunes adapted and written by Al, her husband, a retired airline pilot. They married in 2005 and he shares with his wife an affinity for music.
Born and raised on a 320-acre farm in Casa Grande, Ariz., Caywood-Robertson’s childhood is a patch quilt of country kid memories filled with irrigating fields, tromping down cotton in trailers, and playing with high-jumping toads.
She is the middle child of Tom and Sammie Caywood, who still live in the area. Her son, Travis, now lives with his family on her grandfather’s 247-acre farm located near the community of Eleven Mile Corner, continuing with the family farming tradition.
Rural life is as natural as breathing to Caywood-Robertson. She delights in warm, sunny days, the smell of alfalfa fields and fresh green acres of produce. Her joyful memories of farm life are part of what inspire her in teaching thousands of Imperial Valley students about agriculture and nutrition.
“My dad shared his knowledge of farming with my brother, my sister and me since the very beginning,” Caywood-Robertson explains of her legacy.
Caywood-Robertson recalls sipping cold water with her siblings from an 800-foot well on their property using their tiny hands to form a drinking cup, one of the first things her father taught them to do. As soon as their hands were big enough to cover the end of a hose, he instructed them how to start a siphon hose for irrigating row crops, she says.
Their mother’s vegetable garden was so big that her dad cultivated it with his tractor, and the kids spent many mornings picking various veggies, including radishes, lettuce, and giant watermelons they’d sink into the cool depths of the ditch to chill before eating.
“Okra was always last to be picked because it made us itch so much,” Caywood-Robertson laughs. Then they’d go for a refreshing swim in one of the lined ditches to wash it off.
“Every farm has a good junk pile,” she smiles. “We were always scouting around to find things to make.” Her dad did all his own repairs on the Farmall tractors he favored, picking his parts from the piles neatly organized on their property.
Being the eldest, her brother was the one chosen to operate farm equipment, yet he opted to leave the farming business. He worked as an electrician at the Borax mines in Boron, Calif., and is now retired.
She didn’t plan it, but farming would always remain a huge part of Caywood-Robertson’s life.
Following her graduation from Casa Grande Union High in 1971, she left the bucolic farm life for Arizona State University in Tempe, a suburb of the sixth largest city in the United States. Although she was an involved student, playing flute in the university marching band, the sudden switch from rural landscape to urban lifestyle was a shock.
“I came from a small town and picked a university that was too big,” she admits. “I would’ve been more successful if I’d gone to a junior college first.”
She dropped out in December 1973, enrolled in medical assistant school and was hired at a doctor’s office in Tempe where she stayed until 1979. During that time, she married, had her son Travis, divorced and moved twice.
During the same time, she rode with a friend to watch a fiddling contest in which the friend’s boyfriend competed. Describing herself as a die-hard rock and roll fan, a surprised Caywood-Robertson was mesmerized by the fast-paced picking and fiddling. Enthralled, she decided she would teach herself how to fiddle and would not consider failure as an option.
“I just had to learn how to play,” she shrugs. “Period.”
In the years that followed, she tagged along with several old-time fiddlers and performed with a little acoustical group in Casa Grande who mentored her, taught her techniques and allowed her to develop her own unique style.
In 1983, she landed a job with the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension as a 4-H (a youth development organization) secretary and began a return to the agricultural lifestyle she loved.
While there, she and a good friend successfully designed software for livestock auctions. The program drastically streamlined the momentous task of cataloging, selling and transporting hundreds of animals. Her job evaluations were spectacular. Following each one, her boss Sam lectured her against wasting opportunities and encouraged her to re-enroll and finish her college degree.
His persistence finally wore her down, and she agreed in 1987 to enroll at Central Arizona College, a junior college located near Casa Grande.
“When I gave my resignation, Sam got this huge smile on his face,” she recalls. Then he arranged a meeting at the state 4-H office in Tucson where she met with representatives who gave her a roadmap of courses that would bring her back into the U of A extension. In the meantime, Sam advised her to also seek a teaching credential as a back-up plan.
“I always wanted to go into agriculture,” she confides. “But my dad knew there was no money in ag. Sam knew teaching was a great way to raise children.”
So, 14 years after dropping out, she returned to college as a single mom and promptly began failing her first class, a biology course. Immediately, she panicked and began an internal dialogue.
“Either I’m going to go ahead and fail, or I’m going to learn to study the right way,” she remembers telling herself. Armed with determination and her parents as a support system, she decided she would not quit again.
With a friend, she discovered a learning program called 3RQ which stood for “Read, Review, Recite, Question, and it actually changed her life. Her grades soared, and because of the turnaround, the school invited her to join the honors program. Graduating in 1990 with an associate’s degree, she maintained a 3.89 GPA and completed an honors presentation on the Central Arizona Project.
Her research included a trip to Buckskin Mountain, near Parker, Ariz., where she traveled along the canal, observing massive lift stations and the sump tank, and took hundreds of photos. Here she received the basis for her later fascination with water conservation and the acknowledgement of water sources as the lifeblood of farming and agriculture.
“It was one of the best experiences of my life,” she says. “I was treated with respect and completed the honors project.”
Then she transferred her units to Arizona State University and graduated with her bachelor’s degree in education in 1992.
She was assigned her first class that August at Saguaro School in Casa Grande and joined a team of dedicated second-grade teachers who played a big part in her life. Sharing the responsibilities, they assigned her the duty of arranging field trips.
“We were studying about fish, and I knew the University of Arizona Maricopa Agricultural Center had a fish program and I convinced them to let us visit,” she says. It was just the first in a long line of detailed educational trips for her students. Soon, they were meeting a crop-dusting pilot and touring his plane and then visiting a U.S. water lab and the Health Department so students could learn to tie agriculture to the food they ate.
“I didn’t know it, but my career was developing from a whim,” she says.
The field trips were so successful that other schools begged to be added to the roster. Meanwhile, Caywood-Robertson added more and more ag-related curriculum to her classroom lessons.
“I used it for everyday practical teaching of math, language arts and science,” she explains. She also incorporated her fiddling skills in those early years of teaching, mimicking animal sounds and having the students use their imagination to pen their own stories.
“It was a fun way to teach,” she says.
After taking a leave of absence for one year, she returned to teach first grade at Ocotillo School, an historic adobe school in Casa Grande where her parents, aunts and uncles all attended. Teaching there was nostalgic as well as challenging as most of the students came from the Indian reservation and represented the underprivileged.
In the early 1990s, because of her heavy use of agricultural teaching props, she garnered the attention of the Natural Resource Conservation Districts (NRCD) and was nominated as Teacher of the Year for their district. She won and advanced to win the Arizona and Western regional awards, then going all the way to the National division where she received second place.
She was astounded at the recognition. “I can’t believe this,” she remembers telling herself. “I’m not doing anything except counting cotton bolls instead of macaroni.”
In 1996, the NRCD asked if she wanted to help found the Natural Resource Education Center for Pinal County. Giving up her steady job of teaching, she left to build the program from the ground up while sitting at home with no office, no internet and no idea of how to accomplish what she needed.
She visited the Maricopa Ag Center and asked if she could incorporate their facility in her program. In return, they invited her to an Arizona Ag in the Classroom meeting.
“I was scared to death,” she admits. “I was the new kid on the block.” Sitting to her left, was a man who pestered her with personal questions. Irritated, she finally asked him who he was and why he kept bugging her.
He introduced himself as Dr. Jack Elliot from the agriculture education department at University of Arizona.
“I’m trying to hustle you to come get a master’s degree,” he confessed to her. “Come to my office Tuesday at 3 p.m.”
She went, and thus began a whirlwind of mentorship from Elliot who used her skills to help launch the first teacher resource agriculture awareness literacy program held at Maricopa Ag Center designed to instruct teachers in methods of using agriculture to teach their students.
All of her lesson plans were packaged and ready to hand out to teachers, with all of it lined up with state educational standards, so they could take back ideas to integrate into their classrooms.
She worked for the Natural Resource Conservation District from 1996 to 2001 and earned her master’s degree in 2000 while carrying a 4.0 GPA. She also wrote a rhyming children’s book, about a young boy and his father bartering goods in Mexico, called “A Trip to Trade.”
“I had the mindset that I was not a real teacher because I wasn’t in the classroom,” she confides. But other teachers assured her she was more of a teacher since she was able to incorporate and teach subjects they could not.
The idea of going back to school and earning her PhD formed in the back of her mind, and Elliot was quick to encourage her. She took the GRE (Graduate Requirement Exam), applied to Texas Technical University in Lubbock, and was accepted for the Fall 2001 semester.
At the same time, she heard the University of California Desert Research and Extension Center near Holtville was looking for someone to teach using a National Science Foundation grant that El Centro Elementary School District along with UC DREC’s Debra Driskill and Dr. Paul Sebasta wrote in hopes of winning for this area. While waiting for word on the grant, the Imperial Irrigation District contracted her to implement a Teacher Ag Institute at the UC DREC.
The three-year grant was awarded by the end of summer, and three days before she was supposed to leave for Lubbock, the UC DREC offered her the exciting opportunity to teach the brand new Farm Smart program.
Caywood-Robertson never went to Lubbock for the doctorate program. Those who volunteer and work with her have no regrets. Her teaching style is whimsical and entertaining, while still getting the point across. Proof is in the number of people who go through the program and learn from her curriculum every school year.
In the beginning, Caywood-Robertson and UC DREC brainstormed the curriculum and administration of the program, and for the first three years it was used in a physical and natural sciences program for junior high students.
When the grant ran out, Imperial Irrigation District began donating annually in order to keep Farm Smart viable. Seed companies, farm implement businesses, individuals and other Valley groups also generously donate to keep alive an educational program in which they truly believe.
“When I go to the community and explain our needs, they are so supportive,” Caywood-Robertson says. “They make this program possible.”
In 2002, Linda Sanchez, former public relations officer at IID, also nominated Caywood-Robertson for the writing committee for Montana University’s “Project Wet,” a program that produced a textbook called “Discover a Watershed — The Colorado” that was published in 2004.
“This was all formative for my career,” Caywood-Robertson adds.
Now Farm Smart serves students from kindergarten through high school, but the average age is first through third graders. The curriculum moves through sessions that adapt to the seasonal crops, beginning with Dairy in October, Corn in November and December, the Food Pyramid for March and April, and ending with Insects in May.
In January and February, the program serves thousands of winter visitors who long to learn more about their adopted community.
A couple of years ago, Caywood-Robertson’s father called her, with excitement in his voice, saying he’d located an old, rusted 1953 Massey-Harris tractor that he wanted to restore. So they did, making it a family project, along with both of her parents, Caywood-Robertson, her husband Al, her son Travis and even with Travis’ children helping on it. The result is a gleaming, fire-engine red Massey complete with rich black tires and an engine that purrs.
“I love that tractor. I’d hug it if I could,” Caywood-Robertson laughs as she shows it off to a visitor.
The Massey is essential for one of Caywood-Robertson’s favorite parts of Farm Smart when she drives it to pull kids and winter visitors on the hay-filled flat bed trailers around the fields.
Besides her husband Al’s many contributions, the Farm Smart program continues to receive help from her mother Sammie Caywood who sews all the colorful table coverings. Also instrumental is a team of dedicated volunteers from the Valley as well as all over the United States.
“I could not do this without them,” Caywood-Robertson states.
She recently attended a recognition dinner for her father that inducted him into the Arizona Farmer and Rancher’s Hall of Fame. As she watched him receive a well-earned honor, her heart filled with love for the man who patiently taught her to start a siphon hose and instilled her love of farming. And now she instills that same passion in future generations.
Copyright © 2013, Imperial Valley Press