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New Kansas Foundation for Ag in the Classroom hires new executive director

Amy Hadachek
for The Fence Post
Whittier Elementary School students in Winfield, Kan., just received one of the Kansas Ag in the Classroom's free kits.
Photo courtesy Whittier Elementary staff

This is a critical time to reach students at a young age to think about careers in agriculture, especially as agriculture is going to need an influx of young people to grow the industry to meet increasing food consumption needs.

“To draw people to agriculture, we are going to have to reach out to our youth. The Kansas Foundation for Agriculture in the Classroom (KFAC) can become a mechanism to support industry growth by providing resources to teachers. KFAC resources include lesson plans that help students learn where their food, fiber and fuel come from, it uses agriculture concepts to teach core curriculum such as math and science, and exposes students to the multiple facets of the industry,” said Nancy Zenger-Beneda, who began her position June 1 as executive director of the Kansas Foundation for Ag in the Classroom. “Infusing agriculture concepts in classrooms is a pivotal way to increase the understanding of the value of agriculture, and helps convey career opportunities to students,” Zenger-Beneda said.

Many high school teachers use lesson plans from Kansas Ag in the Classroom, and modify them from time to time, so the grade levels have run the gamut.

“However, the main focus has been on the grade school — grades 1-8. But, Nancy brings skills so we could put emphasis on the upper levels of K-12,” said Jim Adams, KFAC board chairman. “Nancy has taught at the junior college level, so we could actually go beyond K-12, although the majority of our lesson plans have been for grades 1-8. We are excited that Nancy’s skill set will help us survive the pandemic and allow many opportunities to put ‘Ag in every classroom everyday’ throughout the great state of Kansas,” Adams said.

Popular now with kids — and a highlight of Kansas Ag in the Classroom are kits including their seed germination necklace kit. Kids put a seed (soybean, corn or wheat seed) in a little bag with water beads and wear it as a necklace.

“The students are able to watch the seed germinate over seven to 10 days,” said Briana Jacobus, KFAC communications and marketing specialist. “We make those kits in-house. Teachers keep the necklaces in the classroom. It’s something new we started this year, and its been very popular, until COVID started.”

Regarding whether Kansas Ag in the Classroom will get underway this fall due to COVID? “The program runs year-round. We don’t follow the school year,” Jacobus said. “We provide resources for teachers to use in the classroom. Teachers are always looking for resources, anytime.”

Adams agreed. “If a teacher needs to teach online, or if a homeschool teacher wants to use them, they can pull the lesson plans off the website, and use them,” he said.

With the need to feed 10 billion people by year 2050, Zenger-Beneda said agriculture continues being front and center in our nation and throughout the world.

“To feed that population, the agriculture industry will need to produce from 50 percent to 90 percent more food than we are, today. Taking into account changes in food preferences, production practices and actual population growth — even if we don’t actually meet that number, it’s clear we have to continue to increase production,” said Zenger-Beneda, noting, “The need for industry expansion is creating job opportunities and will continue, as the need increases.”

In 2019, the KFAC reached almost 47,000 teachers and students with resources.

To reach more ag students and promote the ag industry, the Kansas organization, (and other states too) are connected to the National Agriculture in the Classroom organization.

“We are continuously working to expand our resources and seek supporters that help make our resources free to educators,” said Zenger-Beneda. “For those interested in supporting our mission of Connecting Classrooms to Kansas Agriculture and Vision of Agriculture in Every Classroom, Every Day, they can support us online,” she said at https://ksagclassroom.org/get-involved/donate.

Additionally, KFAC currently has $500 dollars in mini-grants available for first-time teachers to buy supplies they need to teach about agriculture. (Applications are due June 30 and applications can be found at https://ksagclassroom.org/?s=mini+grants.)

KFAC also provides in-services and pre-services to support teacher education and professional development.

SERVICES FOR TEACHERS

“Our national organization just recognized the 2020 National Excellence in Teaching about Agriculture Award Recipients including a teacher from Kansas, Patricia Wolfe,” Zenger-Beneda said. Wolfe is a special education teacher at Lakemary Center School in Paola, Kan., who develops her own curriculum teaching students with different learning abilities, through hands-on training with domesticated farm animals and a garden therapy center through a program called the ranch. Wolfe uses resources from National Agriculture in the Classroom and the Kansas Foundation for Agriculture in the Classroom to reach her students.

Other programs from Kansas Foundation for Ag in the Classroom, for parents interested in homeschooling, KFAC has lesson plans on their website. They are free and available to download.

KFAC has developed a series of educators guides that are great free resources that can be ordered at https://ksagclassroom.org/education-center/educators-guide/.

“Also, through the support of generous donors, we are able to provide free lesson plan kits which provide all of the supplies needed to teach an agriculture lesson for 25 students,” said Zenger-Beneda.

The new director learned about agriculture with boots on the ground; growing up in a farming and ranching family near Cuba, Kan. After earning her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Kansas State University in speech and communications, Zenger-Beneda and her husband moved back to the area to start a family and their own cow-calf operation.

More recently, Zenger-Beneda has poured heart and soul into supporting a regional junior college during nearly 16 years at Cloud County Community College, serving as faculty, Ag Department chair, division dean, associate vice president for planning and assessment, and interim president, though her most recent role was vice president for Academic Affairs.

But it’s the path to agriculture on which she thrives, determined to help grow the programs with the vision she has meticulously cultivated.

“While at Cloud, I worked to enhance the Ag department by developing a Precision Ag Program and expanded facilities including a new 80×100 foot livestock facility. We started dreaming about such a facility in 2007 and finally in 2020, the building was erected. It was a project that took passion, persistence, and perseverance to come to fruition,” said Zenger-Beneda, who recently completed her Educational Specialist degree in Educational Leadership and Administration from Fort Hays State University. “I’m also proud of the solar energy program and the solar energy lab that provide energy for college operations, and serve as a learning lab for students.”

Zenger-Beneda reflected on her early bond with family and cattle.

“My love for livestock and riding horses was instilled in me by my father, Walter Zenger. He worked horses nearly every day and made sure every animal on the farm had the care it needed before he turned in at night. As a youngster, I was actively involved in 4-H and FFA showing cattle and horses.” Her daughter Celsey developed that same love for horses.

“Those experiences are such a part of me that I continue to show paint horses, and I also serve on the Kansas Paint Horse Association board of directors. We host paint horse shows throughout Kansas and recently developed a series of virtual horses for people who don’t want to or may not be able to travel.

“I believe agriculture and energy are intricately connected,” said Zenger-Beneda said. “We must conserve natural resources as we strive to meet consumption needs of both.”

For more information about Kansas Ag in the Classroom, go to https://ksagclassroom.org/.

The classroom kits can be found at https://ksagclassroom.org/order-resources/lesson-plan-kits/lesson-plan-kit-seed-germination-necklace. ❖

— Hadachek is a freelance writer who lives on a farm with her husband in north central Kansas and is also a meteorologist and storm chaser. She can be reached at rotatingstorm2004@yahoo.com.


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