Clueless consumers motivate agriculture educators to reach more students

Kids line up to smell different things growing in the garden.
Kids march to smell basil, rosemary and mint at Gale Woods Farm, an educational farming facility helping educate kids from different ages in Minnetrista, Minn.
Maria Alejandra Cardona | MPR News

Brown cows don't produce chocolate milk.

Most farms in the U.S. don't consist of a red barn, a cow, a horse, a pig, a few chickens and some corn growing in the background, as children's books suggest.

Perhaps those statements should be obvious, but the reality is most of us received little to no instruction on agriculture in school.

"There are a lot of misconceptions out there about agriculture and the work that happens on farms every day," said Valerie Earley, who grew up on a farm near Wycoff, Minn., and is finishing up a term as a national officer for FFA, an agriculture education organization with about 10,500 Minnesota members.

"People just don't have experience on a farm and don't have a connection to a farmer," said Earley, who has traveled around the country for the past year to represent FFA.

Dozens of Minnesotans weighed in on whether kids are learning enough about agriculture in school through a Public Insight Network survey.

The survey, while not scientific, revealed that both rural and metro-area residents are concerned about the lack of knowledge about agriculture among the consuming public.

The teaching garden at Gale Farms teaches kids about food.
Kids and a mentor pick potatoes and check the basil, rosemary and other items growing at Gale Woods.
Maria Alejandra Cardona | MPR News

"I remember learning about George Washington Carver and something about all the many products made of peanuts," said Amber Ellering of St. Paul, one of those who participated in the survey.

Lipstick was one of the peanut products, Ellering said, but she remembers little else.

With a growing world population, threats to health and food quality, and floods and droughts wiping out crops, we need to do a better job educating the next generation, she said.

"Agriculture has a lot of room for creativity and innovation and a huge role in solving some of humanity's largest challenges. Each person has a role to play," Ellering said.

Less than 10 percent of Minnesota's high school students are enrolled in an agriculture course. And while the state has nearly 200 secondary agriculture education programs, only about 30 of them are located inside the seven-county metro area where half the student population lives, said Joel Larsen, who oversees ag programs at the Minnesota Department of Education.

But metro-area elementary school students have been getting more exposure to agriculture in recent years. School vegetable gardens are popping up, and many schools are involved in farm-to-school programs where school cafeterias serve meals with ingredients supplied by local farmers.

Kids learn 'The Food System' at Gale Wood Farms.
Kids learn "The Food System," an interactive game designed to show how farmers get food to the consumer through grocery stores and restaurants.
Maria Alejandra Cardona | MPR News

About a third of elementary students have access to Ag Mag, a magazine distributed to subscribing teachers by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture's Minnesota Agriculture in the Classroom program. The ag department also takes teachers on tours of farms.

Tom Appel, executive director of the Minnesota Association of Agriculture Educators, said ag educators have been emphasizing agriculture as a way to teach science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). He said agriculture literacy is important because students will someday make important decisions as consumers and voters.

"I think it's important for everybody to learn where their food comes from," he said.

At Gale Woods Farm in Minnetrista, which is part of the Three Rivers Park District, about 20,000 students a year visit to learn about different aspects of farming and food production.

Students can gather eggs, work in a vegetable garden and visit the organic apple orchard, where most of the apples have scab, or pests that have burrowed inside, bringing the challenges of growing food front-and-center.

"They begin to understand some of the decisions and values that go into the way food is raised and some of the tradeoffs that happen," said Tim Reese, farm supervisor at Gale Woods.

Tim Reese holds a chicken inside the chicken coop at Gale Farms.
Gale Woods Farm Supervisor Tim Reese holds a chicken inside the chicken coop last month.
Maria Alejandra Cardona | MPR News

In one of the classrooms at Gale Woods, students can make apple cider and learn about cooking fresh foods. In another, a floor-sized diagram of the food system helps students think about how food gets from a farmer to their dinner plate by showing them all the stops in between — processing plants, distributors, grocery stores.

5 ways for kids (and adults) to learn more about agriculture

• Visit an educational farm, such as Gale Woods Farm in Minnetrista, the Oliver Kelley Farm in Elk River, the Red Barn Learning Farm in Hayfield or one of these agriculture-related tourism sites compiled by Explore Minnesota. Many working farms also offer farm tours.

• Visit the Minnesota State Fair or a county fair and talk to farmers or kids participating in 4-H activities. Exhibits at this year's State Fair included a tour through the food system by the Minnesota Farm Bureau, local food displays and cooking demonstrations at Eco Experience, a pairing of farmers and chefs by the Minnesota Farmer's Union, and educational displays in the animal barns, such as the Moo Booth and Miracle of Birth Center.

• Invite a farmer, FFA member, food scientist or other expert to be a guest speaker at your school, church, library or other community gathering space. For example, Riverview Dairy in Morris offers school tours but also sends educators to classrooms.

• Get connected with an organization that offers activities and events related to agriculture and food production, such as Youth Farm, Farm Camp Minnesota, Gibbs Farm Camp and Frogtown Farm.

• Visit this Facebook link to read other people's ideas and add your own!

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