Califonia Bountiful

Students learn the craft of grafting… and other valuable skills

Sept./Oct. 2009 California Country magazine

Part of my role as president of the Santa Barbara County Farm Bureau has been to include and educate kids on the many different facets of agriculture. Students from kindergarten through college have toured the vineyards I manage. I walk them through soil and water testing, ground preparation, planting and finally the care of the vines up until harvest. I am amazed at how attentive each group is, especially the younger kids as we take them through the vineyard on a trailer being pulled by a small tractor.

Choung Crowe, left, a longtime member of the California Rare Fruit Growers, shows student Melissa Olmstead how to graft an apple tree.

Last February, Teri Bontrager, executive director of our Farm Bureau, and I were asked to participate with Kathy Bibby’s horticulture class as they grafted their 1,000th apple tree. Ms. Bibby teaches agriculture at Santa Ynez Valley Union High School in Santa Ynez and this was the 10th year the class had grafted trees. Teri and I listened as Dr. Joe Sabol, a retired professor from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, explained with great enthusiasm the art of grafting to Ms. Bibby’s attentive class.

Scionwood is a cutting from a tree of the desired variety that it grafted onto another tree or rootstock. Here, after the scionwood is correctly sharpened, it is carefully inserted into the cleft made in the rootstock. 

A contingent of folks from the California Rare Fruit Growers accompanied Dr. Sabol and helped the students with the actual grafting of two trees each. Both Teri and I tried our hand at grafting as well. My effort was best summed up by Dr. Sabol when he told me that apples are very forgiving when it comes to grafting. I will stick to growing winegrapes for now! Also joining us was Paul Wenger, a former student of Dr. Sabol. Paul currently serves as first vice president of the California Farm Bureau. I did not check on Paul’s grafts, but I am pretty sure they were better than mine.

Ms. Bibby’s class, along with other high school horticulture classes throughout Santa Barbara County, also help propagate oak trees to replace fallen and dead trees on farms and ranches in the area. Using acorns gathered as part of an ongoing program sponsored by the county and supported by our Farm Bureau, the students plant the acorns in small cartons and grow them in their school nursery. With better than a 90 percent success rate, they have provided thousands of new oak seedlings to be planted throughout the county. I have planted close to 1,500 on the hills surrounding one of our vineyards.

During our visit to Santa Ynez Valley Union High School, which is my alma mater, I chatted with Mindi Christian. Mindi was a year or two ahead of me in school and is still active with the high school’s agriculture department. Mindi told me of another program at the high school known as E.A.S.T. and thought I would be interested in what the students were doing as part of that class. The acronym stands for environmental and spatial technology. The E.A.S.T. program has worked with local vintners mapping vineyards, utilizing the latest GIS, GPS and CAD technologies. Mindi set up a date for me to visit the class and their teacher, Chip Fenenga.

I met Mr. Fenenga in his state-of-the-art computer lab during one of his classes. He explained to me how E.A.S.T. got started in the state of Arkansas. As I recall the story, it started with a class of students who were not in the mainstream and branded as troublemakers for one reason or another—a group down on their luck. But they had a teacher who recognized they needed some direction, something to spark their interest in learning.

Carol Scott, center, gives Kevin Merrill and Teri Bontrager a private lesson on making a successful graft. Kevin and Teri then worked with the agriculture students at Santa Ynez Valley Union High School. Kevin is the president of the Santa Barbara County Farm Bureau and Teri is the executive director.

It happened that the classroom for these students was across a ditch from the regular school. When it rained the students had to cross the ditch through the mud, leaving them with mud on their clothes and providing a reason for getting in trouble at school. One day their teacher was talking with this group and the subject of the ditch came up. One solution to their problem was to build a bridge over the ditch and avoid the mud. The teacher had an engineering background and began to work with his students on building the bridge. As the project went along, he could see a real difference in the students and their interest in learning. I believe they finished the bridge and the program became a model in the state of Arkansas, which provided grants to schools throughout the state for a program called E.A.S.T.

In the Santa Ynez area, students have worked with the California Highway Patrol mapping accidents along Highway 154 with four years of accident data. This project is a model of many uses of various skills and technologies including GIS, GPS, public speaking, graphics, Web design and video production. This is another great program and as I left the state-of-the-art computer lab, I was already thinking of how I can utilize these talented students on our vineyards and other segments of agriculture.

Thanks to Mr. Fenenga and Ms. Bibby for taking the time to show me the great job they are doing with the students at Santa Ynez Valley Union High School.

Kevin Merrill is a vineyard manager for Mesa Vineyard Management in Santa Maria. He is the current president for the Santa Barbara County Farm Bureau. He can be reached at

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