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.