This is a story about how Janette Yribarren struck a match. It took a while to run it along the box's sandpaper side, but by the time she'd finally done it — heard the match hiss, spark and glow — she was fueled on two things: exasperation and potential.

The exasperation was caused by being regaled regularly by ignorant coffeeshop patrons talking about agriculture as the great evil. She grew frustrated that outside those actually farming the land, no one seemed to understand or appreciate what her family — what every farming family — provided to the nation and world.

The potential Janette saw only came after exasperation had reached a crescendo. But for whatever reason, after she'd suffered foolish comments for so long, the idea came: educate the kids! If the adults were beyond reasoning, their children weren't. Education was the key. Janette knew she'd hit on something possible, something that wasn't overreaching and, most importantly, something that was a damned good idea.

And so, after striking the match in pitch black, Janette reached out and lit a candle. Her efforts are now helping teachers fan the fires in young minds as they teach the core subjects using cotton as their subject matter.

“I was tired of all of the talk lamenting the fact that nobody seems to appreciate farmers. I am a cotton farmer, and my life depends on what we get paid for our cotton. My husband is a cotton farmer and he's a good person, and I want non-farmers to know that he's just like them,” Yribarren says. “We've been farming for 29 years, and we are fighting regulations all of the time on the farm. If voters understood what we had to go through and understood that we are not hurting the environment, I believe they would be more sympathetic to us as an industry,” she says.

To do that, she set her mind to providing teachers with the tools needed to give our youngest citizens a basic understanding of who farmers are, what they do, and why they do it. “If I can teach that teacher that we are her friend, then she'll become our best spokesperson. Simple promotion creates animosity, because teachers are wary of advertising and they are suspicious of it. I'm interested instead in promoting cotton through education.”

She says, “We are teaching the core subjects using cotton as a vehicle. If you are teaching strictly about cotton you are simply advertising a product. You don't really produce a loyal consumer through advertising, all you are producing is an impulse buyer. We want instead to make an investment in our children.”

What started out 12 years ago as simply providing teachers with cotton-based curriculum suggestions, has turned into an information packed Website, a complete teaching curriculum for elementary students in grade one through eight, and as of this year, a video teaching aid.

Yribarren, who lives in Tranquility, Calif., is using cotton as a vehicle to teach the core subjects of reading mathematics, science, social studies, and history. “If I can set out by hitting at least two of those core subjects very heavy, then the program is a success,” she says. “With this program, both teachers and students learn about cotton, but don't realize that they are teaching or learning about cotton.

The cotton-based curriculum for first through eighth grade is aligned to California teacher standards, which are known as some of the most stringent in the nation. Each segment, or lesson plan, includes comprehension questions catered to each grade level. Her “field trip in a box,” provides teachers with a 152-page teaching guide, as well as pima and upland cotton bolls, samples of cotton plants in various growth stages, cottonseed with planting instructions, cottonseed oil, a poster, and a fiber dictionary.

New to the kit is the Cotton's Journey video, which visually illustrates the history, production, and processing of cotton. The video is designed for use with the teaching curriculum, but it can also stand on its own for those teachers looking for a supplemental teaching aid. The California Department of Education recently gave the video its stamp of approval, which means it can now be purchased by school districts in that state using up to 30 percent of state funding.

The next step for Yribarren is to get her “Cotton's Journey” program certified, approved and accepted as a school resource in every Cotton Belt state.

“What I'm finding in every state is that a lot of districts are on their own. There's no central arm that looks at curriculum and says this will work and this won't work,” she says. “What I do have on my side is the “Ag in the Classroom” program, which I've been associated with for 10 years. They seem to have a channel already set up for distributing their information, and I have been piggy-backing with them in most instances.”

Educators can purchase Yribarren's “Cotton's Journey field trip in a box” for $36.95, or a supplemental kit including the video, teaching guide and cottonseed for $25, by calling 800-698-1888, or through Yribarren's Website at www.cottonsjourney.com.

“Cotton's Journey is the first Website that has offered educational curriculum and resources to teachers on cotton — why is that? Why wasn't this thought about a long time ago?” Yribarren asks. “We're constantly bombarded with negative messages from opponents of agriculture. I just wish our cotton organizations had picked this project up years ago — even five years ago — then by now we would have been seeing more results.”

While Yribarren has received some support in recent years from the Cotton Board and the California Cotton Growers Association, her one-person crusade has, by and large, been self-supporting. She is currently in the process of acquiring a non-profit status for the cotton education program.

“In every state a committee of producers determines how the cotton check-off money is spent in their state. While a majority of states have concentrated their funds on research, a select few have chosen education as a recipient of check-off funding. However, only Texas and California have given specifically to cotton education,” she says. “For nine years California producers have appropriated money specifically for producing, distributing and teaching cotton education.”

“Nobody gets paid for this. We're doing it because we want to do it and we want to make a difference,” Yribarren adds.


e-mail: dmuzzi@primediabusiness.com.