Debbie Arrington

Lessons learned down on The Farm

Natalie Minas Watmore, the State Fair’s education coordinator, poses with one of the tower gardens that will be featured at The Farm during this month’s fair.
Natalie Minas Watmore, the State Fair’s education coordinator, poses with one of the tower gardens that will be featured at The Farm during this month’s fair.

Natalie Minas Watmore remembers the lessons handed down with a ripe tomato or green zucchini. Now at the California State Fair, her job is to pass on some of that same wisdom to new generations.

“When I was a kid, my grandmother took all of us out to pick tomatoes,” recalled Watmore, the fair’s education coordinator. “We were out there in a field in Stockton. It was hot. She said, ‘This is why you need to go to college.’ 

Her grandmother wasn’t a farmer or farmworker, noted Watmore. “My grandmother canned tomatoes, tomatillos and jalapeños to make salsa. In summer, you could pick your own (at some farms) and we did.”

But this field trip was about much more than homemade salsa, she said. “She was really pushing us to get an education. She used the tomatoes as a tool. The smell of tomato plants to this day remind me of that.”

At The Farm at Cal Expo, Watmore is surrounded by tomatoes – and much more. During the fair’s July 8-24 run, the 3-acre agricultural display showcases the state’s bounty and tries to put fair patrons back in touch with their farming roots. In addition, The Farm serves as a year-round outdoor classroom to teach kids about food and farming.

“I went to college – and I’m picking tomatoes,” she said with a laugh. “We should have plenty of ripe ones during the fair.”

Those tomatoes, along with other fresh produce, will be used for State Fair cooking demonstrations. Some will also be donated to charity. Last summer, The Farm gave 10,000 pounds of vegetables and fruit to the Sacramento Food Bank.

Watmore, 31, took over from Nancy Koch as “The Farm lady” last year. A California State University, Sacramento, graduate, Watmore had focused her career on marketing and communications, including four years at the California Automobile Museum. After taking the State Fair job, she immersed herself in all things agriculture, working with local farmers as well as other ag educators.

“Agriculture really is people teaching people,” she said. “I know for me, it’s been quite a learning experience.”

Most people assume that farming is old as dirt, Watmore noted, but innovation is changing California’s ag business.

Among the cutting-edge examples featured at The Farm during this 163rd California State Fair is a state-of-the-art “EZ-Clone” cloning system that can produce 517 plants at once, using small cuttings from a mother plant. So far, it’s already churned out hundreds of baby basil, strawberry and tomato plants.

“It’s the first of its kind in the U.S.,” Watmore said. “We’re hoping to have enough plants to give some away during the last week of the fair.”

Also new are several “tower gardens,” vertical growing systems that use aeroponics to irrigate plants.

“Aeroponics are so interesting,” she said. “Similar to hydroponics, aeroponics use air pressure to spray plant roots with mist. It’s actually a quicker way to grow food and can be used indoors. It’s great for urban farming.”

While studying farming and how to present it to non-farmers of all ages, Watmore realized that many things were already second nature to her, thanks to her family.

“I remembered my mom, Norma,” she said. “She used to garden a lot when we were kids. She always had a big garden patch and grew zucchini every summer. Zucchini flowers are edible – I found that fascinating as a kid. But those flowers also can grow into these long green squash. How cool is that?”

Now, Watmore uses that same squash lesson to inspire kids visiting The Farm, and not just during the fair. More than 1,500 students toured the demonstration gardens this spring with many more expected this fall.

“It’s come full circle for me,” Watmore said. “It’s what agriculture is all about – passing it on to the next generation.”