Many of the children who get off the school bus at Elkus Ranch have never been on a farm before. Many of them can’t tell a sheep from a goat and are very fuzzy about the origin of their food. After spending a few hours on this 125-acre ranch located near Half Moon Bay on the California coast, things are quite different. The Elkus Ranch Environmental Education Center is a program of the University of California Cooperative Extension mostly geared towards pre-K to 3rd grade students and special need children. Indeed 25% of the hundreds of kids who visit the ranch every year have special needs. “We are a ranch with livestock. We have donkeys, sheep, goats and chicken. We also have three gardens, a greenhouse and a shade house to wean plants off the greenhouse,” explains Leslie Jensen, the coordinator there. “In our environmental education program, we talk to them about farming and ranching. We talk about predators and preys. We have a “Sheep to shawl” program where we explain all about wool.”
In the enabling garden, raised beds and a hard surface allow children in wheelchairs to enjoy the garden though the program does not allow time to garden. “We talk about plants and nutrition. We talk about photosynthesis. We explain our relation with plants and why we need each other to survive. They taste carrots or broccoli from the garden. They do get to transplant a plant and take it home.”
Though the ranch is not open to the general public, one great way to enjoy the place is to volunteer for community service and learn skills on the ranch. In addition, Elkus Ranch runs a summer camp where children aged 6 to 11 get to garden. More recently, the new director added a 4H program that is training teen ambassadors to go out into the community and teach other kids about gardening. Another program, Lunch at the ranch, lets kids harvest crops in the garden and prepare a meal in the commercial kitchen: a green salad, a veggie pizza and maybe a dessert. “Being so near the Pacific Ocean, we do cool season vegetables all year around. We have lettuce, beets, carrots, Swiss chard, potatoes. But no tomatoes or peppers.”
The Elkus Ranch is familiar to many HTI graduates. For several years, the conference center there has been hosting training sessions. Leslie Jensen herself is a graduate. She credits the HTI training with helping her better connect with children, especially those with special needs. Elkus Ranch is an educational ranch. But many working ranches in the Half Moon Bay area play hosts to city kids to teach them where their food comes from. To get them off the asphalt, as Leslie Jensen puts it.