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Altimira horticulture teacher ‘Mr. Van’ retires

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“It is the only place I’ve ever taught,” said Adrian “Dutch” Van Herwynen, upon his retirement from Altimira Middle School earlier this month.

Over the past 27 years, “Mr. Van,” as he is known, estimates he has taught 2,500 students. He began as a science teacher. Years later, perhaps prompted by Michelle Obama’s interest in nutrition and school gardening programs, Altimira received a grant to start a horticulture program.

With a Cal Poly degree in horticulture, Van Herwynen jumped at the chance. He expanded the campus garden to include raised beds for vegetables and flowers, planted fruit trees, and constructed a greenhouse for seedlings. A .33-acre parcel dubbed the Production Farm was added.

During the peak growing season, his garden parcel turns into a cornucopia of organic produce — corn, pumpkins, tomatoes, squash, melons and eggplant. Using recycled materials, Van Herwynen and his students built a coop for 20-plus chickens. And there’s a CSA program where the students sell fruit, vegetables, succulents, cut flowers and eggs. They learn about running and managing a business, from buying and planting seeds, to taking care of seedlings and, eventually, their sale.

“I leave with a lot of good memories from my time teaching,” Van Herwynen said. “Once I took students to the old Exploratorium for ideas on a science project. Working in teams, they built a mini-Exploratorium with six or seven innovative and complicated projects — a 15-foot echo chamber, a bubbleology experiment, a tactile tunnel, and others that required much time, research and focus.”

The students prepared a syllabus and took their exhibit on the road to elementary schools. “It was rewarding to see such dedication, and the students’ pride in what they accomplished. It’s the hands-on team-building exercises that students tend to remember. And so do the teachers. Watching students try, work hard and succeed is what I will miss the most.”

In clearing out his desk, Van Herwynen discovered a trove of students’ work from prior years.

“I took photographs and emailed them to students whose contact info I still had,” he said. One of the students emailed him back. “The photo made me cry in a happy way. It brought back memories of my time working in the horticulture class.” Several of Van Herwynen’s students have gone on to careers in horticulture, sustainable agriculture and the culinary fields.

“I couldn’t have done all this without my aide, Kimberly Weber,” Van Herwynen said. “She’s terrific.”

And their skills pair perfectly, adds Weber.

“I grew up on a farm and worked in a restaurant so I knew all the practical stuff,” Weber said. “Mr. Van became my mentor. He taught me the science I lacked.”

When Weber and her culinary skills joined, the moniker was changed from horticulture to the more aptly named Farm to Table class. “What we teach is not just about farming or cooking,” Weber said. “It’s about life skills. It’s about working together.”

“Over the years, our program has received tremendous support from the community,” Van Herwynen said. Six colorfully-painted wooden panels hang on the side of a shed proudly displaying names of the supporters like Bloom’s Nursery, chef John McReynolds and Stone Edge Farm. Others are Valley of the Moon Garden Club, Barragan Tree Service and Sonoma Mission Garden. Representatives from California Rare Fruit Growers come yearly with rootstocks to teach grafting techniques.

Van Herwynen’s 16 fourth-period students gathered in the garden the last week of school to practice their culinary skills and do some planting. One group worked at a long table with a vase of bright sunflowers, a small pizza oven and toppings. Andre and Liam, two of the students, spread tomato paste over the thin rounded dough, added slices of pepperoni, and basil and oregano from the garden. As the pizza cooked, an inviting aroma wafted through the garden. The two boys chatted as they ate. “Mr. Van’s a really good teacher,” Andre said. “Yeah,” replied Liam. “I wish he wasn’t retiring.”

After the class Van Herwynen said, “I doubt if I’ll even notice retirement right away. As a teacher I’ve had 27 years of summers, and my wife’s a teacher. When she returns to work in August, then I’ll realize that things are different.”

Different, yes, and yet still plenty busy.

Van Herwynen has plans to continue pursuing his passion, though outside the classroom setting. He’ll be starting a small nursery and selling plants at farmers markets.

“And I want to work at a commercial nursery where I can share my knowledge with customers,” Van Herwynen said, adding, “most of all, I’m going to have fun.”

At the end of the day on June 7, Mr. Van left Altimira after a quarter of a century of rewarding years of inspiring students. But his home-grown Farm to Table program will remain as his legacy.

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