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.