New garden at Sonoma Valley high ready for students

The controls in the high school’s greenhouse are back up and running, but where there should be dozens of plants, the growing tables are empty save a small group of plants in a corner where the teacher has her own thriving plants.

Were it not for the pandemic and distance learning, students would be tending to young plants on those growing tables and in the garden.

The agriculture teacher at Sonoma Valley High School is new. Jessica Hamilton took the job without ever having set foot on campus or visiting Sonoma where she now lives. Hired during the pandemic her interview was done digitally.

Hamilton was excited when she saw the high school farm she would oversee and marvels at its location.

“It’s interesting to be farming in the middle of town,” she said.

Tucked away in a far corner of the school’s property on what used to be pastureland, the farm has several raised beds, a canopied shade house for hardening plants and raising succulents sits next to the greenhouse. Nearby concrete block bins store compost and healthy soil. A tractor that Hamilton used over the summer to move soil into place, and other necessary farming tools are nearby.

“It’s the kind of facility colleges want,” Hamilton said.

It sits next to the vineyard where before the pandemic hit students used to tend to sauvignon blanc vines. The livestock pens are empty now. Future Farmers of America students who raised livestock for the county fair didn’t get to participate in the auction in person this year due to coronavirus, though the animals were sold off.

The animals stayed at the school’s farm longer than usual after being sold because local butchers are busier as a result of coronavirus breakouts at large meat plants.

The garden area is new to the school, courtesy of in-kind and monetary donations from the community. Bee-Well Farms and Sonoma Mission Gardens, for example, donated seeds, plants and other material, Hamilton said.

Teddy Bear Sunflowers stretch their long necks up to see Costoluto Florentino tomatoes and basil growing in the next raised bed. The tomatoes have a distinctive heavily-ribbed shape and are used much like a Roma tomato, Hamilton said.

There are other herbs, butternut and acorn squash, cool and funky pumpkins, jalapeno and serrano peppers, watermelon and a cantaloupe Hamilton said is the best she’s ever tasted.

The Ag Foundation and the school’s maintenance staff have been a big help to her in tending the farm without students, who are not allowed on site.

A paved pathway that runs along the farm’s fence brings by friendly people who admire the garden. When Hamilton first arrived she said people from the community were calling to welcome her and offer assistance.

She grew up on a persimmon farm in Hughson, California – which is near Turlock and Modesto – though her parents are not farmers. Her “stay-at-home” grandpa, though, was at every farming activity Hamilton and her brother participated in, and encouraged their interest in growing things.

“I grew up with my hands in dirt,” Hamilton said.

She has a B.A. from Cal State Stanislaus and her teaching credentials are from Cal State Fresno. She planned a career in agriculture research but after spending some time teaching, she realized she loved the work and spending time with students. At her previous job at Galt High School she taught agricultural biology and agricultural mechanics.

At Sonoma Valley High School she teaches two ag science classes, ag biology and ag chemistry, and floral design. She found a creative way to interact with her students via Zoom when she put together floral design kits – a bud vase, flowers grown at the school garden, wire and ribbon — that students picked up at the school and took home. Through the video screen she showed them how to arrange the flowers in the vase and tie the bow just so.

Some of the boys in class did a better job than the girls at bow tying, she said, possibly because she motivated them by telling them that creating lovely floral designs would be a big hit with girlfriends, moms and grandmothers.

The ag department crosses over with the art and culinary departments through floral design and in a true farm-to-table concept by using the fruits and vegetables grown there in the culinary classes.

There are so many ways that agriculture crosses over to other areas, and Hamilton said she is “excited at the possibilities,” looking forward to the days when she can teach in person and the students can get their hands dirty too.

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