Agriculture and education: a winning combination

Agriculture and education: a winning combination
Issue Date: August 6, 2008
By Kelly Cormier

Successful farmers from Southern California stressed the important link between agriculture and education during this year’s National Agriculture in the Classroom Conference that took place in late June.

While some of the conference attendees have been involved in agriculture and their states’ Farm Bureaus for much of their lives, more than half of the 550 attendees have no personal connection to the agriculture industry.

Orange County farmer and conference panelist Glenn Tanaka spoke of his school tours as the ideal way to combine agriculture with education. Each year, Tanaka Farms hosts pre-school, kindergarten and first grade classes. His work with local schools began in 1984 as a community service. Now, tour groups comprise 30 percent of his gross annual income.

“The emphasis on our farm tour is to get the children to taste the different fruits and vegetables that we are growing at the particular time,” said Tanaka. “We all know that there is absolutely no better way to get students involved than with a hands-on learning experience. I’ve heard many a child tell their parents that they want to be a farmer when they grow up while they are at the farm.”

After attending the AITC National Conference, Tanaka said he is pleased to see that there are teachers across the country working to spread agricultural awareness. Like these teachers, he agrees that the best place to start introducing children to their food source is in the classroom.

“Educating the public is educating our neighbors,” he said. “Many farmers all over the country now have housing developments right next to production fields, whether it be a dairy ranch or a vegetable farm. The more that our neighbors know about our operations and understand our issues that we deal with, the less fear and anxiety they will have and the more peaceful we may coexist.”

“For the most part, teachers who attend this conference understand the importance of teaching their students about agriculture, but most of them have limited knowledge of the daily lives of farmers and ranchers,” said Judy Culbertson, California Foundation for Agriculture in the Classroom executive director. “We wanted to give these educators a glimpse into what it means to be an avocado grower or a dairy producer, for example. We wanted to introduce them to real people who make this industry work, day in and day out, and allow them to put faces and names to the term ‘farmer’ in order to build a better understanding of the lessons they are teaching in their classrooms.”

In addition to the farmers, top state officials from both the worlds of agriculture and education, along with teachers from across the United States gathered in Costa Mesa for the four-day annual event.

California State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell and California Secretary of Food and Agriculture A.G. Kawamura both addressed the audience of 550 teachers, administrators, nutritionists, after-school coordinators and Farm Bureau representatives.

“We’ve laid a solid foundation for the study of agriculture to thrive in our classrooms,” O’Connell said.

As the chief educator of California’s public schools, O’Connell is responsible for overseeing the education of more than 7 million children and young adults in more than 9,000 schools.

“I will continue to build on this because our students must be keenly aware of this industry’s impact on our state and how it affects their health, fitness, and, in a word, their lives,” he said.

O’Connell described the California Fresh Start Program, the nation’s first program earmarking funds to increase consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables in a school nutrition program. He also spoke of his department’s “Garden in Every School” Initiative, applauding the use of California’s 3,000 school gardens to help enhance students’ education and health, and acknowledged the growing Farm-to-School movement, which links schools with local farmers to provide fresh, seasonal, local produce for use in school meals.

The conference created opportunities for further growth in the Southern California area for teachers as well as the agriculture industry.

“I would absolutely be on board and willing to assist to get increased ag education in my daughter’s school,” said Terri Cook of Village Nurseries, whose daughter is entering fifth grade in Anaheim. “Those of us in the industry understand that if we don’t get the word out, we will face a shortage of people to carry on the farms and ranches that are so vital to our economy. We need to get young people interested early. Right now you don’t hear kids say they want to grow up and be farmers. I would say that’s probably not even on the radar screen.”

Cook said that prior to the conference, she was unfamiliar with CFAITC, yet, upon hearing about the organization’s goals, programs and resources, she volunteered to host conference attendees during a tour site stop at her Riverside County facility and growing grounds. Village Nurseries, a retail and wholesale nursery with locations throughout the state, also loaned, delivered and strategically arranged nearly 100 Queen Palm trees and other plants within the conference facility.

“We need to get the word out and show youngsters what agriculture is all about. You don’t see video games about farming or ranching. It’s not a profession with the glitz and glamour and instant gratification that so many in this society have come to expect. While rural life seems great when we’re older, the younger kids long for other things,” Cook said.

Now, with the knowledge of Ag in the Classroom, Cook said she has a renewed sense of direction and an avenue through which to spread agricultural awareness.

Other farmers played an important role during the conference by serving as members of a panel session.

Luawanna Hallstrom, an active California Farm Bureau Federation member from Oceanside, and chief operations officer of Harry Singh & Sons, her family’s third generation tomato growing operation, was joined on the panel by fellow farmers and Farm Bureau members, Charley Wolk, an avocado farmer from Fallbrook and Brad Scott of Scott Brothers Dairy in Riverside County.

Next year’s National Agriculture in the Classroom Conference will be held June 23-27, 2009 in St. Louis, Mo. Learn more about Agriculture in the Classroom by visiting www.cfaitc.org or www.agclassroom.org.

(Kelly Cormier is communications coordinator for the California Foundation for Agriculture in the Classroom. She may be contacted at kcormier@cfaitc.org.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

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