“Throughout much of the history of the United States, agriculture and education have been closely related. During the decades when most Americans lived on farms or in small towns, students often did farm chores before and after school. Indeed, the school year was determined by planting, cultivating, and harvesting schedules. Old school books are full of agricultural references and examples because farming and farm animals were a familiar part of nearly every child’s life.
In the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s, the farm population began to shrink and agricultural emphasis decreased in school books and educational materials. Educators focused on agriculture as an occupational specialty, rather than an integral part of every student’s life. Agriculture education was mainly offered to those few students wanting to make a career of agriculture.
During this period, a small nucleus of educators and others persistently pushed for more agriculture in education. They recognized the interlocking role of farming, food, and fiber production with environmental quality topics like maintaining a clean water supply and preserving and improving forests and wildlife habitat. They kept education in agriculture and the environment alive during a period when interest by the public as a whole was decreasing.
During the 1960s and ’70s, educators began to realize the need for quality materials. Many excellent films, books, and classroom aides were financed and produced by businesses, foundations, nonprofit groups, and associations, as well as state and federal agencies. There was, however, little coordination of effort or exchange of ideas among the groups and no central point for national coordination.
In 1981 the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) under the leadership of then Secretary of Agriculture John Block, invited representatives of agricultural groups and educators to a meeting in Washington, D.C. to discuss agricultural literacy. A national task force was selected from this group. Representation came from agriculture, business, education, and governmental agencies, some of whom were already conducting educational programs in agriculture. Block believed that agriculture should be an integral part of every student’s education experience – not just a subject offered in career and technical programs at the high school level.
This task force recommended that the USDA be the coordinator for national agricultural classroom literacy and that it sponsor regional meetings to help states organize their own programs. They also urged the department to encourage the support of other national groups. Since that time, significant progress has been made through these partnerships of agriculture, business, education, government and dedicated volunteers.
Each state organization addresses agriculture education in a way best suited to its own needs. In some cases, an all-volunteer network is responsible for teacher education and materials distribution. States have formed educational nonprofit organizations which have the benefit of a tax-deductible status. In some states leadership is provided through the departments of education, agriculture or other government agencies; in other states through agriculture organizations or commodity groups; some through universities or colleges; and in some cases through the dedicated efforts of one or two individuals.”
In Iowa, Agriculture in the Classroom enjoyed the leadership from the Iowa Farm Bureau with many county Farm Bureaus leading engagement activities with local teachers and students. These active county organizations have created robust programs and even pooled resources forming organizations like North Central Iowa Ag in the Classroom, Siouxland Ag in the Classroom, and Central Iowa Ag in the Classroom.
Agriculture literacy isn’t only the responsibility of the Farm Bureau. It affects the whole of the agricultural industry. In 2013 and 2014, Iowa Farm Bureau organized meetings of key stakeholders and in May 2014 the Iowa Agriculture Literacy Foundation was born. As the central resource for Agriculture in the Classroom in Iowa we work with educators, volunteers, and students to teach agriculture. As a leading producer of agricultural products, it is important for all Iowans to understand the essential role agriculture has in their lives.
Through the development of lesson plans, organization of teacher professional development, and a variety of other activities, the organization has increased students reached per year from roughly 16,000 to more than 175,800.
This equates to roughly 41% of students in grades K-6 receiving agricultural literacy programming. Teacher engagement too has increased with more than 3100 teachers receiving training to expand their classroom activities and teach science, social studies, and language arts with agriculture. Programs like FarmChat®, student readers like Iowa Ag Today, and books like the My Family’s Farm series have all played a key role in expanding the reach of agriculture literacy in Iowa.
More than 30 Iowa educators will travel to the National Agriculture in the Classroom conference in Kansas City, Missouri this year. The excitement and enthusiasm for agriculture literacy has continued to grow. This is the largest delegation that Iowa has ever had to the national conference. These individuals will bring home curriculum ideas, resources, best practices, and even a national teacher award winner.
One in 5 jobs in Iowa is in agriculture or a related industry. It is vital that our students understand agriculture. Most won’t become farmers. But many will work in this vibrant, growing industry. Food is depended upon three times per day for most people. That food and many other products that we rely on everyday come from agriculture. With advances in technology and the need to continue to increase production while still protecting our natural resources, we need more people interested in agriculture and that means that we need to start them on an educational path with Agriculture in the Classroom!