With about 48 percent of Colorado’s acres devoted to farming and agriculture, no child should ever think that chocolate milk comes from a brown cow.
The Colorado Foundation for Agriculture is working to change just that.
At the foundation’s “2014 Food, Fiber & More AgriCULTURE in the Classroom Summer Institute,” which took place from June 23-27 in Fort Collins, Colo., 40 teachers with little to no agricultural background spent five days learning how to better spread information about Colorado’s farming and ranching industry, and in the process, how to better connect with their students.
This was 2014’s second installment of the Summer Institute. The first took place in Montrose, Colo. June 16-20.
“I didn’t know much about agriculture,” said Amy Findley, science teacher at Platte Valley High School in Kersey, Colo. “I work at a school with mostly agricultural-based students, so for me this experience has been really awesome because it helps me to have an understanding of where my students are coming from, so I can relate with them better, and that’s really important to me because I want to have good relations with my students and understand them and empathize with them.”
Bette Blinde, executive director of the Colorado Foundation for Agriculture, said the Summer Institute started 15 years ago as a way to bring teachers into the world of ag, so they understand its importance and scope.
“Basically, it was because teachers don’t have the resources, they don’t know much about agriculture,” Blinde said. “People are so far removed from that. So we did this as an opportunity to take teachers and share with them the diversity of Colorado agriculture and information about agriculture so they can learn firsthand.”
The first day of the program, the teachers are given materials and resources to take into their classrooms, and given lessons themselves on many of the topics the ag world faces.
This year, speakers included Mary Lee Chin of Nutrition Edge Communications, who spoke about GMOs and biotechnology in food, and Ron Carlton of the Colorado Department of Agriculture.
“I had no clue there was so much technology actually incorporated into the farming,” said Andrew Gagnon, second grade teacher at Pear Park Elementary in Grand Junction. “I knew with the seeds, they were looking into genetics and this and that, but as far as how much technology is integrated into the farming community blew me away.”
The next two days of the five-day seminar included going to various farms and agricultural facilities around northern Colorado, including dairies, feed lots, water conservatories, meat processing plants, agritourism sites and more.
According to Blinde, about 25 different organizations, farms, companies or individuals gave presentations or tours to the class, while 60 additional companies and organizations sponsored the teachers’ enrollment.
On June 25, one of the stops the class made was at Randy Schwalm’s farm, where he hosts the teachers for lunch and lessons.
“It’s a great opportunity for us to share production agriculture with people,” Schwalm said. “I have kind of given up on educating adults. They have their preconceived notions, they watch TV, they get what the media portrays, that agriculture is probably bad or the price of food is too high because farmers are getting it all. I’m ready to educate the kids. To educate the kids, you’ve got to start with the teachers.”
On the fourth day of the program, teachers have the opportunity to follow a farmer or rancher, like Schwalm, to see exactly what goes into their work.
“I call myself an active environmentalist — not an environmental activist,” Schwalm said. “We’re teaching that we are the stewards of the ground, the land, the water, the air. If we abuse any one of those three, it affects us personally and financially, the whole bit. I want that experience for the teachers.”
Jerry Alldredge, member of the foundation’s board and Colorado Regional Representative for Nutrients for Life, stressed the importance of teachers seeing firsthand the amount of work that truly goes into the food they eat.
“I think a lot of teachers come back with the idea of the diversification. Every farmer is diversified,” Alldredge said. “He has to be an etymologist, an agronomist. He has to know how to weld, he has to know about marketing. It’s amazing what these guys have to go through on a daily basis just to make it.”
During the visit to Schwalm’s farm, five members of the Windsor High School FFA spoke to emphasize the importance agricultural education has had on their lives.
“It’s crazy, a lot of people don’t understand what agriculture has in the community, but it’s everything,” said Alex Grimes, historian of the WHS FFA and winner of the Veterinary Science Proficiency Award at the state FFA competition. “From the sunglasses you’re wearing to the shoes that you’re wearing, and from the food that we just ate and to the can that you’re drinking out of. It’s all around us. And people need to understand that more, because if people don’t understand that, how is it going to continue?”
For LeeAnn Bee, the vice president of the foundation’s board, the importance of spreading awareness about the agricultural community is paramount.
She said that when she married into an agricultural family, she knew nothing about it, and as her knowledge grew, so did her passion for helping others learn as well. While giving a tour on her husband’s family’s farm, The Bee Family Centennial Farm Museum, Bee saw a striking example that exemplified the case for a push for agricultural literacy.
“I actually had a 30-year-old man bring his two children out to the farm,” Bee said. “I was doing a tour, and he told his kids that the produce that they eat comes from Safeway, where it lightnings and thunders and rains. And I said, ‘Sir, why are you telling them that?’ He said, ‘Because it’s true, that’s where it grows.’ He’s telling his kids something, and I thought, it’s scary. So, that’s why I’m here.
The Colorado Foundation for Agriculture works year round to disseminate materials to schools and information to educators to bring ag into the classroom.
From their Colorado Readers — nonfiction publications geared toward fourth and fifth grade students — to lesson plans and online activities, the nonprofit organization uses donations from a variety of agencies to diversify ag education without great cost to educators.
All of the readers and similar materials coordinate with Colorado and National Science standards, as a way to link this information into the required curriculum.
“When they go home, they have a variety of resources, both human and print materials and websites and stuff like that that they can utilize to encourage them to use agriculture as a theme to teach other academic subjects,” Blinde said.
On the last day of the program, teachers reconvene and share their lessons and how they plan to incorporate them into their classrooms. Blinde said the complexity of farming is usually the most universal revelation.
“I don’t think they realize the care that our agricultural producer puts into caring for the land, the water, the air and the animals,” Blinde said. “When they come back on Friday, that what they’ll make the most comments about.”
Bee said she hopes the lessons the teachers learn this week will help show children just how important the world of agriculture really is.
“I want kids to know that chocolate milk doesn’t come from a brown cow, and that our food is safe, and that we have the ability in this country to produce enough food to feed all of us,” Bee said. “I hope that we will get to the place that we understand that our food is safe here and that we are, as farmers and ranchers, trying to produce food that is good for us and not detrimental, either to the economy or to the environment or to people.” ❖