OSKALOOSA, Iowa — Bridging the gap between consumers and producers has been a focus of many agriculture groups.
Misinformation and a lack of understanding can create strong opinions on GMOs or conservation practices, for example, that might not be completely accurate. However, a few people in southern Iowa are hoping their efforts are changing that.
Karen Adams is the director for the Ag in the Classroom program through Iowa Farm Bureau in Mahaska and Marion counties. The overall message — food comes from the farm.
“All the kids in Mahaska County, by the time they get through our program, they should know their food doesn’t come from the store,” she said.
Adams was a substitute teacher when she became interested in the program. When reading Charlotte’s Web, she asked a pig farmer to bring in a piglet for the students to see.
That led to her wanting to open up more communication between farmers and everyday consumers. Through the program, Adams visits with students from preschool to third grade in Mahaska County and some third grade classes in Marion County.
“I get to go into the classrooms and teach about agriculture,” she said. “I never knew I would do this, I thought I would be teaching, but I feel like I am just in a different way. I love that the teachers love it. It doesn’t cost them anything and we are their resource.”
While the bulk of the work Adams does is connecting farmers and classrooms in Mahaska and Marion counties, she also works with some schools remotely. This year, students from Miami, Florida, and Juneau, Alaska, have had Skype conversations with Mahaska County farmer Mike Jackson, who has been working with Adams for nearly two years.
The kindergarten students from Juneau even went for a virtual ride during this year’s corn harvest.
“You can’t really take kids on field trips very easily,” Adams said. “To take them out in a field through an iPad and meet the farmer and ask questions live is helpful.”
Some of the questions Jackson gets in the field make for an interesting conversation. This past spring, when he was video chatting with students in Miami while planting soybeans, he had to refill. He held up the seed to the camera to give an idea of how big a soybean was, and he got an unexpected question from the Florida teacher.
“The teacher asked if it was safe to touch the seed with GMOs,” Jackson said. “It was more of a learning experience for the teacher and the student. Any time you can introduce someone to agriculture, it’s a good thing.”
Adams said food is not the only topic discussed. With some of the older classes they work with, they delve into some of the careers that are involved in agriculture and just how many jobs across the state are based in farming.
“Our rural farmers are affecting hundreds and thousands and millions and billions of people by creating jobs and then by providing food that everyone is eating,” she said.
Jackson also said he talks to the students about cover crops, technology and maintenance, including the cost of equipment.
“I could give them a number, but it’s easier to tell them ‘If you lived in a really nice house in Oskaloosa, that’s what this piece of equipment would cost,’” he said.
Getting involved in the program takes a “special farmer,” Adams said. They need a desire to sacrifice some of their time to educate others on what farming actually looks like. With Jackson, that has been easy to do, she said.
“Mike Jackson and his dad Mark are so wanting to tell the agricultural story,” Adams said. “I hit the jackpot with them and I have another farmer in Marion County I work with. Asking farmers to bring their combine out, it’s a busy time of year. It takes a special farmer to think it’s important to take a day to be teaching kids about what we are doing.”
Jackson suggested finding a farmer in each county who is willing to do this would be important for the program and, if possible, getting a rotation of farmers involved to help get different perspectives.