A lesson plan for consumers
Reading. Writing. Arithmetic. Most Americans agree that proficiency in these three skill areas are the foundation of a good education.
To that list, farmers and ranchers suggest adding a fourth: agriculture awareness.
GFB News asked farmers across the state: What do they want or need from the education sector?
One of the main themes that emerged was the need to develop informed consumers with a better understanding of how and where their food is produced. State Rep. Terry England (R-Auburn), who co-chairs the House Rural Development Council (HRDC), echoed this sentiment.
A second theme was a skilled workforce, which we’ll address in a future article.
“I think we have to make sure we not only educate a workforce, but also educate consumers as to where their food, fiber and shelter comes from,” said England, himself a farmer. “We are now several generations removed from the farm and many of today’s consumers have little understanding of the work that goes into providing them with a safe, healthy and abundant food supply at incredibly low prices compared to the rest of the world. We are losing the battle to help folks understand that dirt, animals, blood, sweat, tears and manure are involved in the whole process.”
If expanding public knowledge of agriculture entices students into agricultural careers and they choose to live in rural areas when they grow up, so much the better.
“I think when you talk about rural prosperity, we’re losing a lot of our students moving to urban areas to seek employment,” said Georgia Agriculture Education Program Manager Chip Bridges, whose department oversees Georgia’s FFA activities. “If our program can get students interested in earning a degree in agriculture, then certainly there’s more opportunity for them in rural areas.”
More informed consumers
County Farm Bureaus have promoted agricultural awareness for years, working to get ag topics into school curriculum through the Ag in the Classroom program and partnering with FFA and 4-H programs to enhance public awareness of agriculture.
Burke County Farm Bureau’s (BCFB) work to promote ag awareness includes an annual farm day. Each spring, the county’s third-graders visit the Southeast Georgia Experiment Station in Midville where they see cotton or peanuts being planted and even plant a small plot of their own, BCFB President Lee Webster said.
“The idea was that we wanted the kids to know their food comes from the Earth,” Webster said. “We went back as far as the third grade because the teachers we worked with told us that was the age we needed to start with.”
If adults serving on school boards don’t understand agriculture, then students in their school system seem likely to end up with the same knowledge gap. Eventually, this can affect farmers’ production practices, according to Terry Bramlett, who serves as Fannin County Farm Bureau vice president and on the Fannin County Board of Education.
“There are kids now who don’t know where their food comes from,” Bramlett said. “It’s important for kids to know where food comes from and understand some of the challenges farmers face. We have people passing regulations who I don’t think fully understand what farmers do and the challenges they face. They expect the grocery stores to be full of beautiful fresh produce and products, yet they want to pass regulations that restrict what we can and can’t do.”
Taking ag into the classroom
The trend in recent years toward science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) classes presents a unique opportunity for agriculture.
“Most of our STEM classes are centered around agriculture,” Bramlett said. “All of our elementary schools have greenhouses and raised-bed gardens. We have an orchard at one. I think it’s important for kids to know where their food comes from and understand some of the challenges farmers face.”
To that end, Bramlett said the Fannin school system is building a $3.2 million ag and environmental science facility. The football field-size facility will have a show barn for FFA livestock shows, along with a technology lab allowing students to pursue agricultural interests. Other counties around the state have similar facilities to give their students firsthand encounters with agricultural practices.
According to Bridges, FFA’s use of hands-on teaching dovetails nicely with STEM initiatives.
“We can do applied math and applied science and students get the applied learning from academics,” Bridges said. “It’s academics applied. It’s just a lot better way to teach students.”
Bridges used planting corn as an example of applied learning.
“Laying out the spacing for a row of corn, and how far apart the seeds are, there’s a whole lot of math involved in that,” he said. “Pacing off an area, determining square footage of an area, that’s simply math. It’s a chance to learn math by doing something. It’s action-related instead of just going over theoretical practices sitting in the classroom.”
Bridges thinks the effectiveness of applied learning got the attention of the Georgia General Assembly and contributed to the passage of Senate Bill 330 during the 2018 session. SB 330, titled the Quality Basic Education Act, was sponsored by Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman John Wilkinson (R-Toccoa) and passed unanimously in both chambers.
The bill sets up pilot programs to gauge the effectiveness of expanding FFA into elementary schools. As a part of it, the bill will make agriculture certification available to third-grade teachers. FFA is currently limited to middle and high schools in Georgia.
“There’s several similar initiatives like the Ag in the Classroom with Farm Bureau. We felt like this was something we could do to help younger children understand where their food comes from,” Wilkinson said. “Whether they grow up on a farm or not, it’s a good idea for everybody to have an idea where their food comes from and how it’s produced.”
Teach a person to grow tomatoes
Another way schools can enhance public agricultural awareness is by targeting adults through continuing education. UGA Cooperative Extension offers programs with this goal, and some local school systems have taken it up as well.
In Burke and Fannin counties, the schools offer continuing education courses on ag topics.
Webster said one of the things the Burke County public schools are doing is conducting classes on topics like lawn equipment maintenance and growing a garden.
In Fannin, Bramlett said the school system is sharing a portion of the land where the agriculture science center is being built with Feed Fannin, which is teaching people to grow vegetables. The system bought and renovated the local cannery building used to teach kids – and sometimes their parents – how to produce and store their own food.
“We have people move into our area who don’t know how to raise tomatoes,” Bramlett said. “I maintain that if you teach somebody to produce home-grown tomatoes, you’ve enhanced their life for the rest of their life. There’s just something magical about being able to grow your own food.”