WASHINGTON, July 22, 2015 – A year ago, none of the students at a K-8 school in Hillsborough County, Florida, had experience with agriculture.

“We had a school garden,” elementary school teacher Christine Danger told Agri-Pulse, “but when we started (planting), the majority of our kids said, ‘You can’t eat stuff that was grown in the dirt!’”

Her students’ perception of farming changed dramatically, however, with the addition of an integrative curriculum during the school year. All the core subjects – math, language arts, science and more – were covered during one nine-week period, but different aspects of plants and growing food were the classrooms’ focus.

The students worked in teams of four on agricultural engineering design challenges, Danger said. And each grade levels’ project asked them to address food security in a world that is projected to gain 2 billion people - for a total of 9 billion people - by 2050.

The kindergarteners, for instance, learned how to recycle water in a closed system by building terrariums and the first graders built models of greenhouses. Third graders were tasked with packaging and shipping live plants, and learned to balance inputs, like soil and water, with costs, like shipping weight. Middle school kids were asked to solve more involved problems, such as designing cost-effective vertical farms for use on urban buildings.

Danger’s classroom work was encouraged – and recently rewarded – by the National Agriculture in the Classroom Organization (NAITCO), a nonprofit that aims to educate K-12 teachers and students about the importance of agriculture. Six teachers, including Danger, were presented with the group’s “Excellence in Teaching about Agriculture” award at NAITCO’s recent conference in Louisville, Kentucky.

Lisa Gaskalla, the group’s president, said the conference shows educators how to use agricultural concepts to jazz up their classroom instruction” and “showcase innovative teaching strategies in workshops, awards presentations and tours of agricultural operations.” The bottom line, she said in a press release, is that “agriculture is a great way to teach core subjects and familiarize students with where their food, fiber and fuel come from.”

The agricultural think tank AGree concurs, and recently released a report that describes a disjointed and ineffective system of K-12 food and ag education in the U.S. The report contained five key recommendations and identifies five needed reforms.

“We need to step up our game when it comes to food and ag education in both rural and urban America, or we will be woefully unprepared to compete in the global marketplace, which is now vital to U.S. agriculture,” said Dan Glickman, AGree co-chair and former U.S. agriculture secretary.

First, the report recommends creating a system that assesses or ranks the effectiveness of available curricula in food and ag education. Other recommendations include linking food and ag education to STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programs and establishing a program that would provide additional funding for top performing initiatives, beyond what’s provided under federal legislation known as the Perkins Act.

The remaining suggestions include conducting a national survey to assess agricultural literacy and establishing a committee to review progress in the area of food and ag education. Such a committee would follow in the footsteps of a National Academies of Science  committee formed in 1985 to assess the contributions of ag education to productivity and competitiveness, and a project to reinvent ag education funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation in the late 1990s.

Jim Moseley, AGree co-chair and a former deputy agriculture secretary, said, “So much is required of producers today – skills in agronomy, natural resource management, information technology, and business. I’m confident that young people are up to the challenge, but there is much more we can do to prepare the next generation of farmers and ranchers.”

Théo Anderson, another NAITCO honoree, is doing her part to prepare students through chicken husbandry. The elementary school teacher hatched her idea to use chickens as part of her curriculum in Cache County, Utah, when her class was studying life cycles.

Anderson asked a former student, who was an Eagle Scout, to build a chicken coop for her current students to raise chickens in during the summer. And that’s when Hens for Hunger was started.

Students in Anderson’s class enrolled in the “Chicken Power Club” to take care of the laying hens during the summer until they produced eggs. Those eggs were then sold and the proceeds were donated to the local food pantry. Her class also starting raising mealworms, which develop into beetles, to feed the chickens, and the students built an outdoor garden fertilized with compost that they made from chicken waste and fruits and vegetables left over from school meals.

They don’t just learn the curriculum, “they also learn the work of it,” Anderson said. “I'm hoping they'll want to have their own gardens and (continue to) compost.

Four other individuals were selected as “Teachers of the Year” for their distinguished work in weaving agricultural concepts and principles into innovative public school curriculums: Leslie Preston Meredith of Kentucky, Darlene Petranick of North Carolina, Rachel Parker Morris of Tennessee, and M.K. Preston of Virginia.


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