March 2, 2021

Ag 101: Ag in the Classroom Separates Fact From Fiction

20151015_maxyield_370 (1024x681)Can you imagine a day without agriculture? It’s a challenge that North Central Iowa Ag in the Classroom (NCI AITC) staff pose to local students to make them think.

“Many kids today are often far removed from modern agriculture, even if they grow up in rural Iowa,” said Brenda Mormann, NCI AITC program coordinator. “We present the facts about food and farming and try to make it fun.”

For the past 15 years, Mormann and the NCI AITC team have traveled throughout northern Iowa to work with students from preschool to sixth grade and give them a better understanding of Iowa agriculture’s importance to the economy and society. A big part of the job involves dispelling myths that are entrenched in students’ minds as early as elementary school.

“When we ask kids about whether ethanol is good for the environment, they usually say no,” said Mormann, who works for the Hancock County Farm Bureau. “Also, when we ask them about pigs, they say pigs are icky and gross.”

To offer a new perspective, Mormann and her fellow part-time NCI AITC colleagues, including Linda Anderegg with the Cerro Gordo County Farm Bureau, Leah Reinert from Goodell, Angie Johnson from Kanawha, and Julie Tweeten from Kensett, travel from Estherville to Manly and Emmetsburg to Wellsburg, serving schools throughout the seven member counties of NCI AITC. The team also contracts their services to neighboring counties that don’t have Ag in the Classroom programs.
“I enjoy working with the kids, because they keep you young,” Mormann said. “They are so fun and inquisitive.”

Busting ag myths
Part of the fun for Mormann and her team is busting the myths that surround ag education.

Myth: It’s easy to start an Ag in the Classroom program like NCI AITC.
Fact: It can be hard to get a program started, said Mormann, who noted that NCI AITC started in the Ventura school district. “Teachers are so busy and aren’t always looking to add one more thing to the school day,” Mormann said. “Sometimes you have to meet with curriculum coordinators, school boards, or principals to get an ATIC program started. It can be very time consuming.”

The key is to find a teacher or administrator who warms up to the idea of Ag in the Classroom and is willing to give it a chance. “Once this happened, NCI AITC grew by word of mouth as local newspapers covered it and principals talked about it,” Mormann said. “Now we’re in nearly every school in Hancock, Winnebago, Worth, Cerro Gordo, Franklin, Emmet, and Kossuth County.”

Myth: Ag education is only appropriate for older students.
Fact: Waiting until students reach seventh or eighth grade is almost too late. That’s why NCI AITC begins working with children in preschool and kindergarten, Mormann said. “You can start with preschoolers to teach the basics of animal care and where their food comes from,” she noted. With kindergarten students, the NCI AITC team reads a book about the various animals on the farm. “We introduce them to basic terms and emphasize that the farmer’s main concern is livestock wellbeing and health,” Mormann said.

After planting these seeds of knowledge, the NCI AITC team digs deeper as students advance in their education. A couple of years ago, NCI AITC added a soil and conservation lesson geared toward fourth graders. Two students are invited to come up in front of the class, put on an apron and chef’s hat, and see if they can make soil. “We put a bowl in front of them, add leaves and other materials, and talk about how long it takes to produce an inch of topsoil,” Mormann said. “The kids love it.”

20151015_maxyield_392 (1024x681)Myth: It’s simple to find interesting, accurate ag information to share with students.
Fact: It can be really difficult to find good, accurate ag information, Mormann said. That’s why NCI AITC has worked hard over the last 15 years to create a series of interesting lesson plans and activities. “We create two or three lessons for each grade level, so teachers can choose which one they want,” Mormann said.

Many of the lessons start with common, everyday items the kids can relate to. The apple-Earth activity, for example, uses slices of an apple to show how little of Earth’s land is available to grow crops. “Only 1/32 of the apple represents the land that’s available for growing food,” Mormann said. Other lessons like “What’s in my Tootsie Roll?” help students explore where their food comes from. Questions range from, “Which ingredients could have been grown in Iowa?” to “Are cocoa beans grown in Iowa?” Learning also takes the form of a game with Corn Bingo, which introduces students to the thousands of everyday items made with corn.

Myth: It only takes an hour or two to have an effective Ag in the Classroom program.
Fact: In the CAL Community School District, the NCI AITC ladies present lessons to all the students in one day. They spend three days at other schools and devote an entire week to work with students in larger schools like Mason City and Estherville.

Myth: Ag in the Classroom is just for kids.
Fact: After each lesson, the NCI AITC team members send home a colorful “From the Ground Up” handout that recaps what the students learned and how they can share it with their family. The “Sounds on the Farm” handout, for example, offers fill-in-the-blank activities. “Today, a representative from Farm Bureau’s Ag in the Classroom taught your child a lesson about Iowa agriculture,” reads the handout. “This special edition of ‘From the Ground Up’ was specially designed for your preschooler to continue learning at home. We encourage you to help your preschooler with this fun farm activity and use it to spark a conversation about what your child learned today.”

20151015_maxyield_396 (1024x681)Myth: Kids don’t get excited about agriculture.
Fact: It’s not uncommon for students to exclaim, “Oh, the ag ladies are back!” when the NCI AITC team arrives at their school. “The older kids often remember the lessons they had all the way back to kindergarten,” Mormann said.

Middle school students in grades five through eight get excited about the Pizza Thon competition. “Students develop their own pizza, along with a marketing plan to sell it,” Mormann said. “They also complete a report describing what they learned about the importance of agriculture through the PizzaThon process.”

In April 2015, eight teams from area schools competed at PizzaThon competitions in Clear Lake and Algona. Judges included caterers, grocery store managers, ag lenders, local farmers, and Pizza Ranch staff.

“The teams can win cash, and many donate the money back to their school,” Mormann said. “Teachers and students alike love the PizzaThon competitions.”

While the NCI AITC team invests many hours brainstorming ag lessons, researching the information, planning activities and creating “From the Ground Up” handouts, it’s worth the effort, Mormann said. “We need more people speaking up for the industry. NCI AITC is proud to help students expand their ag knowledge.” N
The Mission of North Central Iowa Ag in the Classroom
• It is our goal to help educators teach children about Iowa agriculture and its importance to our economy and society.
• We believe it is important for Iowa students to know that their food comes from the farm, not from the grocery store.
• We believe it is important for Iowa students to know that we grow corn and soybeans here that become products they eat and use every day.
• We believe it is important for Iowa students to know that farmers work hard to protect our environment and natural resources.

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