Iowa Public Television


Ag In The Classroom

posted on June 19, 2009

For nearly half of this country's history, most of the population followed a rural lifestyle. The tie between the land and the table was clear. Today, a majority of Americans live in an urban setting. Deciding healthy from unhealthy has become more difficult and most would be hard pressed to tell you the name of the farmer who raised the bounty on their dinner table. This is not to say no one is working to reconnect urban dwellers with their rural roots. For more than 25-years, an innovative government program has been working to educate young Americans on how agriculture touches their food, fiber and, more recently, fuel. Jeannie Campbell explains.
When George Washington was inaugurated as America's first president in 1789 , farmers represented 90% of the U.S. labor force. By the 1930's the figure had fallen to just 21%. Today less than 2% of the population is actively engaged in farming.

Tom Tate, National Program Leader / Ag in the Classroom: "And back when there were many more people producing food, everybody kind of knew about the relationships of how food came through, the farm gate and over to the dinner plate. Everybody understood the full steps because they grew their own food…"

Tom Tate is the national program leader of Ag in the Classroom, a USDA educational program aimed at providing students with a better understanding of the importance of agriculture.

Tom Tate, National Program Leader / Ag in the Classroom: We need to provide these future policy makers. These future teachers, these future agricultural workers, these future people in all careers so they can make a better informed decision about the use of our national resources and the sustainability of our planet to produce food, fiber and now fuel."

Secretary of Agriculture John Block initiated the Agriculture in the Classroom program in 1981. Coordinated through the USDA, the programs goal is to help teachers incorporate agricultural information in core subjects taught in kindergarten through 12th grade.

Melissa Brooks, Iowa Farm Bureau: "So what we're trying to show them is you can teach agriculture and still reach your educational standards and also teaching agriculture is more than a farming unit. What we're looking to do is incorporate it into the science and into the social studies, real life math story problems for example using agriculture as a background. "

Melissa Brooks is the Leadership Program's Coordinator at Iowa Farm Bureau and the state's contact for Ag in the Classroom. Every summer teachers in Iowa are given the opportunity to attend a 2½-day course where they learn explore educational resources available through the program.

Tom Tate, National Program Leader / Ag in the Classroom: "Today we're talking about tens of thousands of teachers across the United States, are now using these Ag in the Classroom materials to help extend what we call agricultural literacy."

While not mandated, all 50 states have Ag in the Classroom. Each state determines the program's scope, curriculum and budget. In Iowa, those decisions are made by the Iowa Ag Awareness Coalition. The coalition is unique in that it is composed of each of the major ag commodity groups, as well as several other organizations with ties to agriculture. The coalition's chairman Gretta Irwin, is the Executive Director of the Iowa Turkey Federation.

Gretta Irwin, Iowa Turkey Federation: "It started oh 16 years ago back in 1992 as a way for all of us to come together and accomplish this mission of educating Iowa's youth on agriculture."

The coalition meets 10 times a year to develop curriculum and to decide how to spend it's $7,500 annual budget. Since USDA does not provide money at the state level, dues, contributions and grants comprise the total operating budget.

Gretta Irwin, Iowa Turkey Federation: "It can be a lot of work but coming together reduced our workload as individuals because we all share the burden of getting that information out there and getting it developed. I don't think individually any of us could succeed in doing the volume of work that we have done over the last 16 years."

Lynne Wagner is the Education Coordinator for Silos and Smokestacks, an organization with the mission of preserving and telling the story of American agriculture.

Lynne Wagner, Silos and Smokestacks: "Surprisingly even with the rural schools a lot of the students don't have a grasp of agriculture, even if they're from a rural community they might live in town, they've never been on a farm, they don't understand how that process works. You still find students who don't know where their milk comes from. So that's why we feel that lessons like these are important."

Silos and Smokestacks is a member of the Iowa Ag Awareness Coalition where Wagner chairs the committee on distance learning.

Lynne Wagner, Silos and Smokestacks: "We are one of the number one ag producing states in the nation. So, it helps students become proud of that. It works."

The annual federal budget for Agriculture in the Classroom is $500,000. Since that money generates $10 million dollars in contributions every year to the program, the governments return on it's investment would make a president smile, but what makes it work is the belief that knowing where food comes from is important. That belief is why individuals are willing to volunteer their time, organizations are willing to donate dollars and why teachers are willing to spread the word of agriculture in the classroom.

Tom Tate, National Program Leader/Ag in the Classroom: "We have 5 million youngsters that have been treated with Ag in the Classroom materials. So we thing that the whole system of our society stands to benefit greatly from the ag in the Classroom, teachers and the students they work with."

For Market to Market, I'm Jeannie Campbell.

Tags: agriculture corn education ethanol Iowa news soybeans USDA