Making the grade
Jan./Feb. 2011 California Country magazine
Story by Christine Souza
Photos by Christine Souza, Sarah Lee and Tom Underhill
Farm Bureau programs teach kids about farms, food and fiber.
From a broadcast studio in Kings County about 200 miles from their classroom in Hawthorne, Diana Peck easily holds the attention of 35 fourth-graders as she teaches a lesson on “The Wonder of Cotton: From Field to Fabric.”
Standing in a small broadcast studio in Hanford, Diana Peck captures the attention of students in a Los Angeles-area classroom with her bubbly personality and with projected images of a massive harvester removing puffy white bolls of cotton from a field. Peck, the executive director of the Kings County Farm Bureau, is using interactive video conference technology—video and audio communication linked to multiple locations—to teach children about where their food and fiber comes from.
This is just one of many approaches the state's 53 county Farm Bureaus and the California Foundation for Agriculture in the Classroom take to provide teachers with entertaining and meaningful ways to introduce their students to the exciting world of agriculture.
With video conferencing technology, students and the presenter are able to interact with each other in real time. Agricultural experts can "visit" the classroom and engage in dialogue with the students. Virtual field trips can also be incorporated, which may involve a video linkup to a farm, ranch or processing facility.
Kings County Farm Bureau Executive Director Diana Peck uses interactive video conference technology to teach L.A.-area students about Kings County’s No. 2 crop.
Jefferson Elementary School teacher Kathryn Varner leads a classroom of 35 busy fourth-graders in Los Angeles County. In the fall, she took advantage of a video conferencing program about the growth and production of cotton, taught by the Kings County Farm Bureau and the Kings County Office of Education.
"This was the first time my students had ever done something like this. I would give the lesson two thumbs up," Varner said. "Being able to see all the intricate parts to not only the making of cotton, but also how the web cameras and presenters were able to see and communicate with each other, really broadened the students' horizons about how far technology has come and how far it could take them. It brought learning to life for a generation of kids whose No. 1 hobby is playing video games or watching TV."
The Kings County Farm Bureau and the county Office of Education have partnered to create two lessons aligned with state and national curriculum standards, including "The Wonder of Cotton: From Farm to Fabric" and "The Journey of Milk: From Cow to Carton." In just one semester, the lesson on cotton reached about 1,300 children in third through fifth grades across the country.
Video conferencing technology allows Peck and the students to interact with each other in real time.
Nine-year-old Sonia Baya, a student in Varner's class in Hawthorne, said she learned quite a bit about California's cotton crop.
"I learned that cotton is a flower and it turns softer than what it was and becomes clothing through a series of machines," she said. "I thought the web cameras and how (Peck) could see us and answer our questions and say our names was cool. I also learned and got to see the bugs that keep the cotton plant alive, and about the bugs that kill it."
Varner noted that video conferencing technology is a great addition to any teacher's classroom.
"Especially given the fact that field trips were the first to be cut from the budget last year, these virtual field trips are so beneficial. What a concept! My students would have never visited Kings County, nor learned about cotton in the manner in which they did, had it not been for this lesson," she said. "These interactive trips allow students to see things and go places that normally wouldn't be available to them."
Teachers can access the video conference technology through an online directory found at the Center for Interactive Learning and Collaboration at www.cilc.org.
"This is a great new technology that allows teachers to bring agriculture into their classrooms without having to have an agricultural background," Peck said.
At Yuba-Sutter County Farm Bureau’s Farm Day, Sutter High School student Rayna Barden, left, shows the goat she is raising to Kynoch Elementary School teacher Nikki Nakamura and students from the Marysville school.
Outside of the classroom, children in third and fourth grades throughout the state can experience agricultural life through Farm Day, an annual event offered by many county Farm Bureaus in California.
At the Yuba-Sutter County Farm Bureau's event last fall, about 2,000 third-graders visited the local fairgrounds to learn about farm animals, including pigs and goats, and locally grown farm products such as rice, prunes and peaches. The students also met people involved in agriculture, including farmers, businesspeople and Future Farmers of America high school students, who volunteered to staff the event's activity stations.
"The goal of Farm Day is to show children the agriculture that is happening in their own backyard. We live in an agricultural community and some kids don't know where their food comes from," said Danielle Coleman, Yuba-Sutter County Farm Bureau executive director. "When they experience our event, it's a lot of fun to see the children's faces. They are just fascinated."
Yuba-Sutter County Farm Bureau Executive Director Danielle Coleman, center, introduces kids to agriculture in a presentation with Wheatland High School FFA members Ren Burns, left, and Michael Bradshaw.
Reonna Miller of the Wheatland High School FFA took part for the first time, helping at the guinea pig station. "Farm Day is kind of crazy, but the kids love the guinea pigs," she said. "They don't know much about them, but I'm able to tell them that there are many breeds."
Meanwhile, at the honeybee station, students from Yuba County's Camptonville Elementary School were buzzing with excitement while listening to a beekeeper. After donning the beekeeper's protective veil, student Erin Bigley described the experience as "kind of weird."
She also learned "that if you get stung by a honeybee, the stinger is still there and you have to flick it off."
County Farm Bureaus offer another learning opportunity that also includes an academic challenge. Agribee is an annual competition in which third- and fourth-grade students are asked to spell and define agriculture-related words. The word list includes about 200 entries ranging from "aphid" (a small insect that feeds on the juice from plants) to "yield" (the quantity or amount produced).
Kirsten-Grace Baker from the Children's Community Charter School in Paradise shares a high five with Butte County Farm Bureau Executive Director Colleen Cecil. The 9-year-old won the 2010 Agribee, a spelling bee hosted by the Butte County Farm Bureau.
Last year, 20 schools from Butte, Glenn, Tehama, Yuba, Sutter and Colusa counties held Agribee competitions, and the top two students from each school moved on to the final.
"The Agribee is very exciting because this is an opportunity to educate kids about what is important about their rural communities," said Colleen Cecil, Butte County Farm Bureau executive director, who runs the program. She added that she hopes the Agribee will eventually become a statewide event (www.buttefarmbureau.com/events/agribee).
"The most wonderful feedback I received was two years ago from a parent who came up to me and said, 'I learned so much from my child participating because we worked on it together at home,'" Cecil said. "Not only are we educating kids, we are educating families, too."
Christine Souza is a reporter for California Country. She can be reached at 800-698-FARM or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Promoting ag literacy is a win-win
Whether planting a garden, visiting a petting zoo or helping mom or dad select produce at the grocery store, agricultural education exists everywhere. The California Foundation for Agriculture in the Classroom expands these kinds of opportunities into agricultural literacy lessons for students that are written to meet state curriculum standards.
An affiliate of the California Farm Bureau Federation, AITC began as a Farm Bureau program and in 1986, became a separate nonprofit organization. AITC works closely with county Farm Bureaus to provide accurate, unbiased and professionally developed materials to support local educators and, in turn, their students.
"We hope that the students will have a better understanding of where their food, clothing or shelter comes from. Then, as they grow up, they will be more knowledgeable when it comes to understanding the needs of agriculture," explained AITC Executive Director Judy Culbertson.
Educators and parents can access these and other free resources on the foundation website:
- Gardens for Learning: A guidebook that provides a strong foundation to support the growing school garden movement. www.learnaboutag.org/gardensforlearning
- Garden lesson plans: Based on the demonstration WE Garden at Capitol Park in Sacramento, people of all ages learn from lessons rooted in nutrition, healthy living, agriculture, science, history and service. www.learnaboutag.org/wegarden
- CROP Circles (California Regions of Optimal Planting): An easy-to-use diagram for planting a school garden. www.learnaboutag.org/cropcircles
- Cream of the Crop E-newsletter: Monthly newsletter with articles about agriculture-related resources, ideas, information and AITC events. www.learnaboutag.org/cotc
- Commodity and Natural Resource Fact and Activity Sheets: From alfalfa to walnuts, these sheets present current information on items including the history, production, top producing regions, varieties and economic value. www.learnaboutag.org/factsheets
- Lesson plans that meet California content standards for kindergarten through 12th-grade students. Examples are "Milk Matters! Discovering Dairy" and "Food Safety from Farm to Fork." www.learnaboutag.org/lessonplans
- "Imagine this... Stories Inspired by Agriculture": This writing contest promotes reading, writing and the arts and furthers the understanding of agriculture. About 10,000 students in the third through eighth grades write agriculturally themed essays each year for the chance to become a published author. www.learnaboutag.org/imaginethis
- Teacher Resource Guide outlines an array of materials to encourage agricultural literacy. www.learnaboutag.org/trg