In the eyes of their children, Jim and Leila Rice are remembered most for their strong, shared belief in stewardship.
“My dad would always say, ‘We’re just stewards of this land. Our obligation is to leave it better than when we got it.’ It was always conservation and stewardship,” their daughter Jane (Rice) Volker reflected.
In 1950, the Rices purchased a dairy farm in Tunkhannock, but later moved to New Jersey to pursue roles as 4-H agents.
Both were active on the farm and saw the importance of educating upcoming generations about conservation, farming and the environment.
They also instilled these values in their four children: Volker, Jim Rice Jr., Bill Rice and Linda (Rice) Pearce.
“When they retired and moved back up here permanently, they knew that they wanted to continue the stewardship and conservation idea for kids in this area,” Volker said.
And so they did through Conservation Field Day, an annual event held at Rice Family Farm in conjunction with the Wyoming County Conservation District that has spanned four decades.
While the couple has passed, Jim in 2001 and Leila in 2017, the Rice family legacy and their educational efforts live on in Tunkhannock.
“She was always right with dad and all of his ideas,” Volker said. “After he died, there was no thought of doing anything except continuing Conservation Field Days.”
Each year, fifth graders come down to a wide, open field on Mile Road in Tunkhannock to learn about a range of subjects at different stations with local experts.
Some of these experts have been right out of the Rice family.
Volker and her husband Harry, former owners of the commercial beekeeping business Volker Family Apiary, have taught children about the importance of bees for pollination and food.
Jim Jr., who has also worked as a 4-H agent, has been an active presenter, most recently teaching children alongside Harry about water quality, aquatic insects and finding solitude through observing the world in a quiet place.
Over time, the Conservation Field Day has kept its original structure and purpose, but has also evolved to incorporate advances in the relevant fields and modern technology such as drones.
According to Volker, discovering innovative techniques was another passion of her late parents.
One way of doing this was by incorporating humps and terraces into the field to divert runoff.
“When dad put those in way back in the 1950s, people thought he was nuts,” she said, noting that he also practiced contour farming, which was a technique barely heard of at the time.
In this past year, the Rice family sold most of their land, but still plans to help out with Conservation Field Day as much as possible for years to come.
“We knew the conservation district would want Conservation Field Day to continue, so we approached them about buying a strip here where they usually hold it,” she said. “That worked out fine, so they have 12 acres all up along and down the woods. They have plenty of space for future years.”
When they decided to keep only 10 acres for themselves and sell the rest, there was a major condition involved.
“We did not want to sell it for housing,” Volker explained. “My dad just always wanted to preserve this as open space, an oxygen-producing area.”
The Rice children tried to convince local farmers or vineyard owners to buy the land to ensure it would be kept open, but none were able to afford the amount in which it was assessed.
In the end, one house was built on the land, and the owner has turned out to be a good neighbor.
“It turns out one spot on this whole 32 acres was the only space they could find for septic, which meant one house on this acreage, which was a total surprise and total blessing,” she said.
Looking back on the past 40 years, Volker’s favorite memory of Conservation Field Day is a recurring one: Children always say how their parents remember visiting the farm as fifth graders, or adults reflect on their field trip from years ago.
“It’s amazing how many incidences will meet up with people who have been here,” she said.
The best example of this that she can recall is a man in his early 20s who ran off Route 6 and made big ruts into the field.
“He came over to mom and dad’s house and said ‘Don’t worry, Mr. and Mrs. Rice, I was here as a fifth grader for the Conservation Field Day, and I know how we have to take care of the soil and not let it erode.’”
As promised, he returned later to fix his mess, and Volker was amazed that the Conservation Field Day had such an effect on him, even years later.
The Rices also enjoy receiving thank you notes where students talk about a particular station they enjoyed and why they found interesting.
“The family has always been concerned about keeping this land as it was and Conservation Field Day is more or less one way that we can invest in keeping it the way it was, teach the next generation how important it is to have open land,” she said.