Monday, July 20, 2009

Ideas for classroom sown as teachers tour farm

Ideas for classroom sown as teachers tour farm

By Julian Emerson

With a dwindling number of family farms dotting the landscape, agriculture seems further removed from the daily lives of most residents here and throughout the U.S. these days.
But farm-related issues were very much alive for a group of teachers attending an agriculture-training session Tuesday south of Eau Claire sponsored by the Wisconsin Ag in the Classroom program and UW-River Falls.

In fact, those teachers hope to take the hands-on experience they gained at the Pat and Sarah Schaffer farm back to their classrooms and spread a seemingly simple yet often-missed message to students: agriculture is important.

"If we can get students to at least understand the basics, we can hopefully get them to start thinking about agriculture and start to connect the dots about how important agriculture is to all of our lives," Ferron Havens of the Wisconsin Agribusiness Council told a dozen educators attending the workshop.

That can be a difficult task, given that most students and teachers no longer grow up on farms as American culture has shifted from an agrarian to an urban society. Karyl Rosenberg, a high school science teacher at Nicolet Union High school in Glendale just north of Milwaukee, said few of the students she teaches have firsthand farm experience.

However, that doesn't mean agriculture doesn't matter to those students, Rosenberg said. Not by a long shot.

"I ask my students 'Do you know where your food comes from?' " Rosenberg said during a brief break between speakers. "When they start to look at it, students realize that agriculture affects a lot of parts of their lives."

Unlike Rosenberg, Melinda Goplin grew up on a dairy farm near Independence. Now a high school agriculture teacher at Whitehall High School, Goplin said she got involved in ag education because she was frustrated with how little most people knew about farming life.

"Too many of us are too removed from the farm, so we don't have that natural understanding about agriculture," she said.

Backers of the Wisconsin Ag in the Classroom program hope to change that. The program not only provides teachers with personal visits to farms but also with agricultural curricular materials to assist student learning of the subject.

Preserving agriculture is especially important in Wisconsin, said Jane Mueller, a Brackett farmer and Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation District 4 Women's Chair. The industry represents 12 percent of jobs in the Badger state and generates about $50 billion annually.

Mueller and others attending the workshop noted people's growing interest in knowing where their food is produced, and they hope to capitalize on that trend by tying it to the importance of agriculture.

"The aim of this program is to let kids know about the interconnectedness of farming," Mueller said. "There are so many professions that are tied to agriculture. It's not just about life on the farm any more."

The Schaffers are doing their part to spread that message. They have hosted other agriculture-education events and hope interest in agriculture grows.

"We need to do a better job of letting everyone know how closely their lives are connected to agriculture," Sarah Schaffer said.

Emerson can be reached at 830-5911, (800) 236-7077 or

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