Reflections on agriculture education

I have been working directly with students in public and private schools across North Iowa for the better part of 20 years. I am not, nor have I ever been, under contract with a particular school district. Yet I’ve seen tens of thousands of students in my tenure, always with the goal of promoting Iowa agriculture and stressing its importance to our economy and our communities.

rockwell-oct-2016North Central Iowa Ag in the Classroom is the organization I work for, and expectation number one on my job description is to seek out and develop interesting agriculture lessons. It is my job to gather the resources necessary to educate youth about agriculture, and to find ways to (hopefully!) hold the attention of my audience. It might be a 3 year-old preschooler or a middle school student whose mind can be a difficult thing to engage.

Today, there is vastly more support for those of us tasked with providing accurate agriculture education to students and adults. When I started my career in agriculture education, there were few organizations like the Iowa Agriculture Literacy Foundation that someone in my position could turn to for help. There was no such thing as a one-stop source for book recommendations, lesson plans and activities in one neat bundle. It wasn’t uncommon for me to spend days researching and refining a single lesson. I might come across a book I thought described an interesting chunk of Iowa agriculture or farming practices. If I wanted to use that book as the basis for classroom instruction, I then had to seek out or write the lesson plan to complete the message. Once I had the book and lesson plan, then it was on to finding or developing an activity to make the concept more meaningful to the students. Remember, this was pre-Pinterest time! I was completely on my own!

In the beginning, my colleagues and I were commonly considered to be “entertainment” for the students since it was unusual for agriculture to be accepted as an important, relevant component in elementary education.  And, I must admit, we submitted to that request for entertainment in order to get our foot in the door of many school districts. We built scarecrows during a fall harvest festival, we entered classrooms dressed up as the Nutrition Princess to talk about healthy food choices, and we hauled a microwave around to be prepared to make corn plastic.

Rather than building scarecrows, now we talk to kids about the environment and how concerned farmers are about protecting it. We don’t have to dress up in costumes to get students’ attention when we tell them that farmers in Iowa grow the corn and soybeans that become foods they eat every day. Or when we tell them how dedicated farmers are to caring for their livestock.


Happily, for me and everyone else involved in teaching the next generation of consumers where their food and fiber originates, what we do has become a much more respected practice in the eyes of teachers and administrators. They truly understand the value of teaching youth the importance of agriculture and the many careers tied to that industry.

cs3-oct-2015I am impressed with how far we’ve advanced agriculture education in schools. There are many organizations across the country coming together to support each other’s efforts to teach about farming, and that’s making it much easier for people like me.

-Brenda Mormann, North Central Iowa Ag in the Classroom

Learning about the world around us beyond the classroom

It comes as no surprise that the dynamics of the typical American family have changed and will continue to do so. The family unit is increasingly diverse and constantly evolving. According to the Iowa Afterschool Alliance, 1 in 4 families has a child enrolled in some type of after school program.

Pig Farmer.jpgI would encourage those of us who are passionate about sharing information about agriculture to extend our thinking beyond the traditional classroom. There are a host of resources and activities that are great for specific lessons, but have we thought about using these resources outside of the common teacher/student role? After school programs, library reading programs, child care centers, YMCA youth programs, and home school self-studies are all under-utilized areas for making connections to agriculture.

The after school programs, summer programs, or structured learning within a childcare center provide an ideal time and place to get students excited about learning and pursuing their own interests. Self-confidence expands as they explore new talents in areas that may not be addressed by the regular school curriculum.

Newton library 2.jpgKnowing that many libraries and summer care facilities struggle to find interactive and fun programs to fill their time, I brainstormed a way to share information about agriculture in this setting. The 2015 summer reading theme, “Every Hero has a Story”, provided inspiration for this project. I took the idea of the superhero and applied it to agriculture. “Farmers are Superheroes Too” was born. Many kids can easily relate to superheroes and cartoons. What super powers might the farmer have? The thought of a farmer duplicating animals, having equipment that can drive itself and possessing super strength is exciting and intriguing for the targeted age group within these programs.

Chicks Library-2.jpgFrom photos of animals and crops to people and equipment, each became a cartoon using free online software. Matching up the photos with the superpowers led to the creation of a short story, “Farmers are Superheroes Too”.

Our local libraries, YMCA summer programs and care centers were happy to provide me with time to share this resource. We read the book with ages PreK to 4th graders. An exciting supplement to the book was the chance to use the FarmChat program and Skype with a farmer who demonstrated how his tractor could drive itself. This added experience helped make the farmer superhero come to life while demonstrating technology in agriculture. Other activities that have accompanied the book include planting vegetable seeds for children to take home and bringing baby chicks into childcare centers.

feeding calf at julies.jpgSharing information about agriculture helps put the world around us into perspective. There is no better tool than agriculture for the application of learning. Make sure the activities you offer are fun and engaging, no matter what they are designed to teach. Most kids are tired after a long day at school, and they will be best able to absorb the content of a lesson if it looks more like play and less like a traditional classroom lesson.

Be inspired to share agriculture in new ways! If you would like a free copy of the book, “Farmers are Superheroes Too” please feel free to contact me at

-Trish Hafkey is the Ag in the Classroom coordinator for Jasper Co. Farm Bureau

Why Teach about Agriculture?

This October marks the beginning of my fourth year with Siouxland Agriculture in the Classroom and as I reflect on how I’ve gotten to this point, one memory sticks out as a turning point in my career journey.

I started my freshman year at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln as a pre-veterinary student. But by the end of the second semester, my long-term goals—and my major—changed dramatically.

I was enrolled in an Agricultural Leadership course during the second semester of my freshman year. This course required 20 hours of a service-learning project to be completed. I chose to volunteer at the Boys and Girls Club of Lincoln in an elementary school in downtown Lincoln.

One afternoon, I was called to help out with “Cooking Club.” At the start of Cooking Club that day, the 5th grade students were to compete in a short game to determine which group got to start cooking first. The game consisted of the lead teacher holding up a card with pictures of food and kitchen items on it and the students guessing what the picture was. The first card was a picture of soybeans.

soybeans drawing.jpg

Being a farm girl and an agriculture student, I was suddenly a lot more interested in this game.

The students started guessing. “Green beans!” “Peas!” “Lima beans!” All good guesses for inner city Lincoln 5th graders but not quite right. The teacher spoke up, “Come on guys, we live in Nebraska! This is an agriculture state. We have farms here. You should know this.” I knew it was a picture of soybeans. The teacher knew it was a picture of soybeans, but what followed will always stick with me.

One of the girls in my group turned to me and asked, “What’s a farm?” And once she asked this, the students around us begged the same question.

My heart sunk. I could have cried. Here we were, less than a few miles from the Nebraska Department of Agriculture, a land grant university, the Nebraska Soybean Board headquarters, several real-life Nebraska soybean farms, and these 5th graders didn’t know what a farm was.

I quickly explained to the students what a farm was and that I lived on a farm, and the game continued. Throughout the rest of Cooking Club, my mind raced. When I got home that evening from volunteering, I went straight to the Dean’s office and changed my major to Agriculture Education and Communication. I could not stand idly by and let 5th graders in a rural state not know what a farm was.

Fast-forward six years and here I am. I lead Siouxland Agriculture in the Classroom, a non-profit founded in 2013 by a group of individuals who saw the need for increased agriculture education in Woodbury County, home of Sioux City.


Transitional kindergartners wear their dairy cow hats after learning all about Iowa dairy production.  

Over the past three years, I’ve worked with countless students in a five-county area to teach them what farmers do and how their food gets from the farm to their kitchen table. While the counties I oversee are primarily rural areas, I see the disconnect between producers and consumers everywhere. Students today are, on average, at least three generations removed from the farm. Their knowledge of where food comes from is often gained from television, social media or even video games; whether it’s factual or not.


Chris TenNapel of Ireton FarmChats with Orange City 7th grade science students from his hog farm.

This is why agriculture education and the Agriculture in the Classroom program is so important, not only to the individuals participating in the educational programs but to the agriculture industry as a whole.

The students in schools today are our future buyers, voters and influencers. We need them to be knowledgeable about modern agriculture.

My last thought stems from a favorite quote. “My grandfather used to say that once in your life you need a doctor, a lawyer, a policeman and a preacher. But every day, three times a day, you need a farmer.” –Brenda Schoepp

I’d add to the end of that quote. “And every day a farmer needs an animal nutritionist, a crop scientist, an agriculture engineer, a mechanic, a veterinarian, etc.” Whether they have an agricultural background or not, the students we reach today can be the people farmers need in tomorrow’s agriculture industry. Even a girl who once asked, “What’s a farm?”


Melissa Nelson is the program coordinator for Siouxland Ag in the Classroom

The Science of Agriculture

Have you ever observed something and wondered why does it look that way or why does it do that? This is what scientists do on a continuous basis in their lives. They look at a phenomena and try to figure out the how, why, or what of it.

IMG_2543.JPGOur beautiful state of Iowa offers a plethora of agricultural phenomena to be figured out in classrooms. One example of this is in northwest Iowa where I live. Earlier this spring there was a lot of rainfall that kept farmers out of the fields. In fact, some farmers, including my husband, were not able to farm some of the ground because of standing water. In one particular area, a pond flooded so badly that it crossed a state highway and filled the ditches.

IMG_2544.JPGMany people drive by this area and wonder, why did that farm ground flood so badly and why is the water still standing in the ditches? In fact, this flooding has attracted many Great Blue Herons and various types of ducks.

  • So the question is, what caused this area to flood so badly and still be flooded in the fall?
  • What brought the Great Blue Heron to this area when we never see them before?
  • What will the farmer have to do to prepare this land for planting next year when it has all this water standing on it?
  • Will it affect his crops next year?

IMG_2537.JPGThis is a local phenomenon that teachers could have their students figure out. For example, the teacher could take the students on a field trip and observe the impact of the flooding on this particular system. Or if a field trip is not possible the teacher could take a picture to show the students. Construct a driving question board on why it happened. Students could question if this was due to some sort of human activity with the land or maybe a drainage problem. This is where students would engage in the science and engineering practices of obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information to explain what is happening and come up with a design solution to the problem.

This type of phenomena can involve different disciplines of science. Through their investigations the students can make connections between the ecosystems of the Great Blue Heron in life science. They can connect earth and human activity in earth and space with the flooding. They can connect weather patterns with the rainfall in physical science.

The new Iowa Science Standards offer a bridge between science and agriculture. Teachers can construct real life experiences by exposing students to local phenomena such as the flooding on this farm ground and having them engage like scientists in figuring out what happened here. Is there something we can design or possibly do to prevent this from happening?

Making the shift in the classroom from learning-about to figuring-out can bring about some authentic agriculture related science experiences. Look around! There are agricultural phenomena everywhere just waiting to be figured out!

-Jody Still Herbold, Education Consultant and farmer, Northwest AEA

My Fall Protocol

Fall is officially here, even though the temperatures are still rising into the high 80’s. Colder temperatures are just around the corner and we need to be doing some winter preparation before that first frost arrives. I do my yard preparation in three major steps: cleaning up the yard; preparing the yard for winter; and planting for the spring bloom. I know it sounds like a lot of work and I will be out doing the preparation, too!

Clean up that yard:

I love to fill my yard with flowers in the spcompostring and summer, so one of the first things I will need to do is pull out the annuals and put them with my compost. These plants are only intended to grow for one season and won’t survive the winter. Composting could be a subject all on its own – so for now I just suggest you allow nature to do what it does best in breaking down the plant matter to be able to help future things grow. Composting is one awesome way to dispose of yard waste and be environmentally friendly too. Clean out your pots and store them for the winter. With cold Iowa temperatures, the containers will weather better stacked and stored. Cleaning your pots helps prevent molds and bacteria transfer from one season to the next. Sometimes it is good to clean with a mild disinfectant solution.

Cut back your perennials. Trim gangly stems. Any non-woody stems can be pruned back to within an inch or two of the ground. In most cases, only woody stems and branches will survive the cold Iowa winters. You can also do this in the spring (I just like to have a start on the preparation for next years’ tasks). Pick up excess yard waste or branches and dispose of them properly by composting or adding to the city yard waste collection bags.

Keep up with your weeding until the frost arrives for good and it will help lessen the amount of weed pulling that you will do in the spring. Some weeds are hardy perennials and it is best to not give invasive plants a chance to establish a deep root system.

Preparation for the chillfrost

I protect my plants with a light layer of mulch. (I rake and mulch my leaves and then use that as a layer of protection). This layer of protection helps prevent soil temperatures from becoming too extreme. Even if frost penetrates the ground it won’t kill the plant roots if it isn’t too extreme. Some of the more fragile plants have to weather the winter in my basement. I dig them up and transfer them to a pot that I can bring indoors. I just have to find a sunny location and put a tray down layered with small pebbles and water so that they still get a little moisture and a little light.

Remove the garden hose from the outdoor faucets and allow them to drain out and them store them for the winter. If a hose is left outside with water in it, the water will freeze and crack or break the hose.leaves

Rake your leaves as needed.  It hurts the lawn to leave the leaves down on the grass and with the arrival of snow can damage the lawn if left all winter long.

Winterize your outdoor equipment. Taking the time to clean up and winterize will help your equipment to last longer and be prepared for next spring. Winterize by draining the gasoline tank, cleaning debris off, sharpening blades, removing rust, etc. I store the equipment, so that critters or cold temperatures won’t do damage.

Plant for the Spring:is

As I said earlier, I like flowers and color. I take time to plant spring bulbs sometime in late September early October. They will look the best if you plant them in bunches of 8-10 bulbs. Tulips, daffodils, hyacinths, and even irises work great for a pop of spring color. I like to make sure I use good planting soil and a little bit of mulch in with the bulbs and then put a layer on top for protection.

This Fall To-Do list that will take a little of time on the weekend, but reaping the rewards next spring when there is less to do and there is properly working equipment will be a blessing.  Just grab the sweatshirt and the yard gloves and get busy!

       ~ Sheri


Organizing for Agriculture

This title alone does not convey this to be an engaging blog, but let’s see if I can put a unique spin on this topic. What have you done for agriculture? What do you do to help support, promote or advocate for agriculture? Agriculture is connected to so many careers, it is important everyone becomes informed on the issues facing agriculture, food production and the environment. I encourage you to LISTEN (it’s different than hearing) to many different viewpoints, form your own opinions, and stand behind your beliefs. Boy, all those election commercials are rubbing off, sorry.

Iowans have long recognized the importance in having a voice in and about agriculture. It is the backbone of our state economy. Do you know how many Iowans have held the position as Secretary of United States Department of Agriculture? The answer: six! The most of any state! You will likely recognize some of their names: James “Tama Jim” Wilson, Edwin Thomas Meredith, Henry C. Wallace, Henry A. Wallace, Mike Johanns, and Tom Vilsack. All of these men have interesting backgrounds.  One of these gentlemen allowed George Washingon Carver to stay in his office while going to Iowa Agricultural College (ISU). Another founded the Better Homes and Gardens magazine, while another went on to become Vice President of the United States. All these men had a strong voice about the importance of Iowa and agriculture. You, too, can you be a voice. Do you visit with farmers? Do you call your legislators and speak with them to voice your concerns at a local, regional, state and national level?

And did you know at one time the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture was not a member of the President’s Cabinet? An organization rallied in 1889 to make this position a part of the Cabinet. What organization do you think that was? If your answer was the Farm Bureau, you would be incorrect. The American Farm Bureau Federation did not form until 1920. The correct answer would be the National Grange, founded in 1867. To be honest, the first time I heard of the Grange was watching Little House on the Prairie. Pa got dressed up, went to a Grange meeting and wore a yellow ribbon on his lapel. (Yes, I remember the strangest things.) That is all I could tell you before I did a little research.  Did you know the Grange was also involved in the Hatch Act that created experimental stations at state colleges of agriculture. (GO ISU!) they also were involved in legislation in 1906 that promoted ethanol as a motor fuel. See, ethanol is not a new thing. There are other items in the news presented as new which, if one did a little research, would find have been around for decades (i.e. methane, GMOs, soil/water conservation).

Sugar Grove 2

The National Grange will be holding their 150th convention in November. According to the National Grange website, it states they advocate for rural America and agriculture. With a history of grassroots activism, family values and community service, the Grange is a part of 2,100 hometowns in the United States. One of these hometowns is Newton, IA, home to the Silos & Smokestacks Partner Site Sugar Grove Vineyards & Gathering Place, a rejuvenated 1870s Grange Hall. I hope you will make an appointment to visit.

These are just two examples of organizations and people that have had a voice for agriculture. I encourage you to check out FarmHer, WOCAN, Iowa Corn Growers, Iowa Soybean, Iowa Cattlemen, Iowa Pork Producers, American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, and the many others that have a voice for American agriculture. How can you help?

-Laura, Silos and Smokestacks National Heritage Area

Fall is just around the corner. For me, Fall brings back memories of scenicfire pit evenings, football games, beautiful fall colors in tree lines, seasonal mums, and picking apples. I savor family time being spent outdoors. I thoroughly enjoy watching my grandkids during this time of year…especially when we travel to the apple orchard and they are all about helping pick “good” apples. That got me thinking about how I can help them learn about picking apples as we have fun at the apple orchard.

I prefer like to look for a “pick your own” orchard because I love to do the apple picking. Many of the orchards offer other festivities like games and pumpkins patches.  Here in Iowa, September and early October are the best times to visit the orchards.

There are a few things that I have learned that will make the apple picking experience a positive event for the visitor as well as the orchard owners.

  • Pick apples in the designated areas. Orchards have predetermined trees that are ready for picking. Meaning that the apples are ripe, ready and will easily come off the ridetree without damaging the tree for future seasons.
  • No tree climbing. Not only is this dangerous, it could do damage to the more fragile areas of the tree and unless they have provided ladders to reach higher limbs, the apples to be picked are the ones that are within reach.
  • No throwing apples.
  • Watch your step. Since apples adorn the ground it is important to watch where you are stepping and to wear appropriate shoes to be able to walk freely on uneven ground.
  • Keep the younger ones close and help them in the picking process. Help them to learn the importance of picking apples with future years in mind. When we damage the tree it does affect the next years’ blooms.

What to look for and how to pick like an expert:

  • Look at the apple. Look for imperfections like blemishes, bruises or insect damage.
  • The apple should have a creamy looking background. If the apple is a red apple, it will isstill have a golden glow behind the red color. No matter what your favorite type of apple, a ripe and ready apple will have a creamy coloring in the background.
  • A ripe apple will general be a sweeter apple. The more tart the apple, the less ripe it is.
  • A ripe apple will be crisp. Apples will become less crisp as they ripen.
  • If there are a lot of apples on the ground, chances are that particular tree is ripe or over ripened and has been dropping apples.
  • Seeds will be brown in color. When you cut into the apple, the seeds of a ripe apple will be brown in color.

Picking apples 101:apple

  • Apples are delicate and need to be treated accordingly.
  • Don’t pull, tug or grab at the apples. Be gentle and roll the apple in the direction of the branch and twist gently. The stem should break away easily and the spur should remain intact on the tree. If you pull to roughly, you remove the spur of the apple.
  • Most orchards will provide bags to collect apples you’ve picked. Be sure to not over stuff the bags which may bruise or damage your harvest.
  • Store your apples in a cool, dark place. They should be separate from other produce.
  • Apples last longer when stored in a cool (33 degree), high humidity (90-95%) location.
  • Do not wash the apples until you are ready to eat them. Unwashed apples have better storage
  • If you notice that the stem is missing – this apple should be used or disposed of, because it can create an entry area for pests.

The apple picking season is just getting started. Get out and enjoy the fall with the family and remember some of these helpful suggestions to make your experience as well as others the best it can be.

 ~  Sheri


The Art of Apple Picking