When Ettamarie Peterson was growing up, she never dreamed she’d be living on a farm with cows, horses and bees. As a city girl living in downtown Sacramento, she just wanted to become a school teacher.
Peterson did become a school teacher, and 18 years ago she retired from a 37 year career teaching. While Peterson might be retired, she’s definitely not done educating today’s children, particularly about agriculture.
The diversified farm where she lives in Petaluma is far from where Peterson saw herself as she was growing up knowing nothing about the agriculture that surrounded her. Peterson’s first interaction with agriculture was in the late 60’s when her husband Ray, who was working in San Francisco, bought 20 head of Angus cattle.
When purchasing the cattle, the Petersons had been informed the heifers were not bred, but one evening as Peterson was at the farm without her husband, her daughter told her she thought one of the cows was having a calf. Unsure what to do, Peterson called the neighbor who suggested she call the vet. The cow was indeed having a calf, and Peterson ended up helping the vet pull the calf.
“I was a city girl pulling a calf in Potter Valley, and that was my intro to farming. After that everything seemed easy,” Peterson recalled.
When Peterson began teaching, she lived in Lafayette in the 60’s with her husband and children, but remembers the community she lived in as being focused on money and often racist. Peterson knew that was not how she wanted to raise her children, and her experience from the Potter Valley ranch made her realize that country people were different. In her experience, they were more open-minded and accepting.
The Petersons moved to their Petaluma ranch in 1972 where they have lived since. And while their focus has changed, moving from a herd of cattle to a couple of cows they raise more as pets, agriculture is still important to Peterson.
On her Petaluma farm, Peterson has more than 70 chickens, a large vegetable garden, a sunflower patch, two cow-calf pairs, two horses, three rabbits, two dogs and seven beehives.
While Peterson’s animals and crops provide some financial income, they serve a more important purpose: to educate elementary school age children about agriculture and where their food comes from.
Peterson hosts school groups ranging from small classes to groups having an upwards of 60-80 children. She often hosts third graders as their curriculum includes studying insects.
Peterson teaches about bees and worms, in addition to having the students feed the animals. With larger classes, she breaks students into groups where they can learn about bees, rotate and learn about worms and composting and then switch a third time to feed the animals.
She said the highlight for many students is feeding large animals. Students can feed the cows alfalfa cubes and are taught how to hold their hand flat when feeding a horse. They also have the opportunity to see and interact with many of the farms other animals including the chickens, rabbits and a goose.
When teaching about bees, Peterson has an observation colony for students to see the bees’ colony through clear glass. Students can look on each side of the colony and see hundreds of bees working to produce honey. They can also search for the queen bee in the colony.
Peterson has a collection of props she uses to educate children ranging from honeycomb to beeswax to puppets.
“I was a teacher for 37 years, so it all comes naturally,” said Peterson. She said teachers often appreciate the fact that she was a school teacher, knowing how to speak with children and set safety rules.
“It’s really good for children to come out to the farm,” said Peterson. “I want to teach agriculture.” Peterson explains that she doesn’t entice teachers to bring students with anything “hokey” such as jump houses, and the students receive a true experience by visiting her farm.
Students touring Peterson’s farm take home honey sticks and sunflower seeds grown on the farm which they can plant in the spring.
Peterson’s sunflowers serve a dual purpose, to provide food for the bees and food for people. In addition to the sunflowers, much of the Peterson Farm is planted with flowers and crops that provide food for the bees. The property isn’t certified organic, but it is certified bee friendly, something Peterson finds much more important.
In her spare time, one of Peterson’s hobbies includes taking photos of the bees on flowers. She has a special lens for her camera that allows her to get close to the plants to photograph the bees up close and personal.
Just as Peterson never planned to be involved with farming, Peterson never thought she would become a beekeeper. She first became fascinated with bees when she found out they were living in the barn wall.
Peterson made a window in the wall to watch the bees which would later become her observation hive to teach students. One day, the bees swarmed out by a mailbox near the road and someone called a beekeeper. When the beekeeper showed up, Peterson showed him where she had been watching the bees in the barn.
The beekeeper suggested Peterson go to a local store where she could buy a bee box, and in a few days when it was assembled, the beekeeper would bring the swarm back to live in the hive.
That was how Peterson gained her first hive, and she now has six more. Shortly after she had her first bee hive, Peterson joined the Sonoma County Beekeepers’ Association, where she has served as President and now manages their newsletter. Peterson has also taken trips to Ireland to learn about beekeeping.
Each of Peterson’s hives produces more than 30 and up to 60lbs of honey each year when she harvests around June. She sells all of her honey each year within a couple months and said she could sell more, especially if she harvested the honey earlier in the year, but there isn’t enough food for more bees.
Peterson said most people don’t realize how hard it is to keep bees alive nor how much food it takes for the bees. While bees can fly three miles a day, it takes one acre to feed each beehive every day.
She notes that another problem with bees is many store bought pesticides harm the bees. Peterson said large agriculture in the county is not the problem, instead Peterson sees it as backyard farmers who buy chemicals at the store and don’t read the label. She notes that most people want beautiful gardens but often don’t understand how they’re harming the bees.
“Yes, the bees are in danger, but we are our own worst enemy,” said Peterson. She said she is adamant about teaching about bees to educate the general public. She describes bees as being the canary in the coal mine. “It’s not just for the bees’ sake, it’s for our own. If we take care of our earth, we’ll all be healthier.”
Peterson also educates students through 4-H, where she is a longtime co-leader for the Liberty 4-H beekeeping project. She said it’s neat to see the younger generation getting into to beekeeping. She loves how 4-H programs get families involved and are very family oriented and believes 4-H is helping to keep agriculture alive.
“I love living on a farm,” said Peterson. “I can’t imagine living anywhere else. I don’t know how I lived in the city. Even if I’m old and crippled, I’ll live on a farm.”