Ethics in Agriculture

cow eating grass.JPGRight and wrong. Good and bad. Choices.

Food is essential for our survival as human beings. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations says that society needs to provide its people with the means to obtain food. In our modern society, farmers are responsible for ensuring that enough food is produced to feed all humans. This leads to the enhanced well-being of citizens and that by eliminating hunger and malnutrition we improve human health. But the production of food to feed people cannot be the only consideration. Natural resources and the natural world should also be valued and a balance should be struck. These somewhat opposing forces (agriculture for the betterment of humans and protection of the natural world) necessitate the making of choices.

Farmers make choices everyday about how to produce that food. Government workers make choices everyday about regulating food production. Researchers make choices about the science they conduct to advance agriculture. Industrial workers, lawmakers, technology developers, consumers, and protesters all make choices.

2.jpgChoice Impact Outcomes

It is these choices that determine the ethics of agriculture. Are the choices good or bad? Are they right or wrong? Not every choice has a purely positive outcome. Some choices have negative consequences. But to determine if choice is good or bad sometimes we need to decide if the positives of the choice outweigh the potential negative impacts of the choice. These ethics can be documented through legal codes, religion, literature, and other hallmarks of our recorded history. Ethics are values generally agreed upon by the collective whole. But because we are humans and each view the world a little differently that agreement or consensus isn’t solidified. Ethics can change as society changes.

Fewer People Produce Their Own Food

As early as 16th Century Europe, farming started to transition from ‘a way of life’ to a profitable business. Since then farmers have continued to specialize as a profession. For most of human history, all people of the society had to be involved in raising and producing food. But today, fewer than 2% of the U.S. population is involved in production agriculture. Farmers raise and produce food to feed the other 98% and our global market of trade and exchange has allowed farmers to specialize and raise only one or two crops or livestock species. The trade-off is that this system has led to mono-cultured crops and intensive livestock production systems.

Agriculture and farming was also held in high regard as an underpin of democracy with hard-working, solid citizens. Farming can be viewed as a noble human endeavor – to feed the people of Earth. At the end of World War 2, there was a tremendous need to increase food production. Agriculture and the role of farmers has been to supply abundant, safe, and nutritious food that is affordable to the consumer. New technologies and governmental policies allowed this to happen and today farmers produce enough calories to feed every person on earth. But it isn’t necessarily the right kind of food,.and logistical problems of food distribution keep nutritious food supplies from areas that need them. At the current rate of human population growth it is assumed there will be at least 9 billion (2 million more) humans to feed by the year 2050. Farmers still largely view their role as one to produce more food.

field corn 2.JPGSustainability Provides Ethical Guidance

In modern agriculture we can use the idea of sustainability to help determine if a choice is ethical. Sustainability has three parts – economic sustainability, social sustainability, and environmental sustainability.

  1. Economic sustainability – If the farm will be profitable and the farmer will stay in business, it will lead to economic sustainability.
  2. Social sustainability – If the choice is good for individual humans and the community, it will lead to social sustainability.
  3. Environmental sustainability – If the production method doesn’t degrade the natural environment (soil, water, air, and plant and animal communities), then it will lead to environmental sustainability.

Finding a Balance

Ethical conversations teeter on this balance. And different groups of people might prioritize one leg of sustainability over the other. For example, people passionate about nature, wildlife, and wild habitats might say those require top consideration. But if a farmer can’t use the natural resources like soil and water to produce their crops and raise their livestock, then they will not be economically or socially sustainable. As another example, vegans and vegetarians might protest the killing of livestock for human food consumption. But throughout history, humans have been omnivores and eat meat and animal products as a part of their diet along with plants. The meat provides essential amino acids, fats, proteins, vitamins, and minerals that all contribute toward a healthy diet. Without meat as a part of the human diet, humans may not be as healthy and therefore the system wouldn’t be as socially sustainable.

In ethical conversations there are many considerations to weigh and balance. The conversations can include farm structure, animal welfare, food safety, environmental impacts, international trade, food security, biotechnology, research, and more. Where we land on these conversations and choices help determine governmental policies, food safety regulations, research and technology regulation, and other guiding rules and laws.

For example, biotechnology has incredible potential to advance agricultural production. Can the positive results outweigh the risks associated with it? Prudent regulation can help mitigate the risks but still allow for the advances.

Raising crops in monoculture has an incredibly high level of efficiency and productivity, but can lead to soil degredation and increased disease pressure. Can the positive results outweigh the risks associated with it? New practices like no-till farming and cover crops can reduce the negative effects of soil erosion and improve soil micro-organisms, but can cost more money to implement.

Raising animals indoors can significantly improve the efficiency of the production system. Can the positive results outweigh the negative aspects of confined quarters? Health monitoring, access to fresh food and water, and manure management keep livestock healthy with a high level of care and welfare.

These are just a few examples of the pros and cons in agriculture and why the choices made are thought to be ethical.

Farmers and others in agricultural industry make choices every day. No situation is perfect and farmers can continue to improve their practices. And ethics of farming may evolve and shift and change, but I would submit that they make these choices with the best of intentions and the hope that they are making the right, good, and ethical choice.


Why Do They Do That? Seed Treatments


Purple, green, orange, yellow, red? No, these aren’t colors of M&Ms. These are some of the colors you’ll see on agriculture crop seeds that have been treated with the latest technologies to fight diseases and pests. Treating seed is nothing new. Farmers have been using different types of seed treatments dating clear back to 60 A.D. In this blog post, you’ll learn more about how farmers use them today and why.

So, just what is seed treatment?
Seed treating is the act of applying a product to a seed prior to planting. When seeds go into the ground, there are many diseases and pests just waiting to take advantage of those young seeds and seedlings for their own benefit. Farmers want to protect their investment so treating seed is one way to help prevent crop loss.

There are a variety of treatments, but the main categories include fungicides, insecticides, and antimicrobial products.

  • Fungicides are chemical compounds or organisms used to kill fungi or their spores. Typically, two or three fungicides are used at a time.
  • Insecticides are substances used to kill insects. In any given field, many different insects want to feed on the seed. Insecticides help protect against both the actual insect as well as their eggs or larvae.
  • Antimicrobial is an agent that kills microorganisms or stops their growth. These biological treatments can also help plants in other ways such as producing their own nitrogen or helping to extend root systems.

Why do farmers use seed treatments?
Every year, between 20 to 40 percent of yield is lost due to pathogens, insects and weeds, according to Bayer Crop Science. Maybe this is why treating seed has been around for centuries. Farmers throughout history have been trying to find ways to protect their crops from damage. The earliest reported use of a seed treatment dates back to 60 A.D. when wine and crushed cypress leaves were used to protect seed from storage insects, according to the American Seed Trade Association.

Besides farm equipment, the purchase of seeds is one of the most expensive products a farmer must purchase. And it’s an annual purchase. Farmers and companies that Treated-Seed-in-planter-300x169 - croplifejpgsupport those farmers continually want to find ways to protect the value of the seed as economically and environmentally responsible as possible. Seed treatments are one way farmers can protect the seed’s value. Seed treatments can also be a more environmentally friendly way of using pesticides and insecticides. Smaller amounts of these chemicals can be used to benefit the seed when comparing seed treatments to spraying. 

Benefits of seed treatments

  • Seed treatments protect seeds and seedlings against early-season insect pests and diseases.
  • Results in stronger, healthier plants, and higher crop yields.
  • Allows for more accuracy and efficiency in crop production inputs.
  • Reduces the environmental impact of the production process by decreasing the number of spray applications needed on any given field. In short, using treated seed allows for less spraying during the growing season. This helps lessen the exposure to pollinators and other wildlife.
  • By applying color with the treated seed, farmers can tell immediately what type of seed and chemical solution is on the seed in the case of accidental spills.

Seed treatment safety


Source: GMO Answers

Agriculture is one of the most heavily regulated industries. It can take a decade or more for a new trait to go from an idea to a seed in the field. New products – both seed and chemical applications alike – go through years of research and testing. Once products are ready for market, agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) evaluate the product for safety purposes.

Treated seeds are no different. Farmers are required to follow safe handling procedures to protect the food industry, wildlife, and the environment. Here are just a few of the procedures farmers must follow to protect the environment.

  • Know which treatments seeds have received to ensure proper handling.
  • Wear proper personal protective equipment (PPE) when handling treated seed.
  • Clean up spills immediately.
  • Avoid generating dust when handling treated seed.
  • Properly dispose of leftover treated seed.

Ultimately, farmers want to give their seeds the best possible chance to mature to a healthy plant ready to harvest. They deeply care for the land, which has likely been in their family for generations and want to see that land continue to produce crops not only for their family but also the world. Seed treatments are one of the tools in their toolbox to help them to just that.


Additional Sources








Macronutrients in Crop Production

elements in the environment

When growing crops of any type, it’s important to understand the required inputs in order to receive the desired yields. One of these inputs, arguably the most important and critical one, revolves around nutrient management. All plants have these requirements, whether it be crops grown for biofuels, fruit production, or landscape ornamentals. Each plant needs various amounts of nutrients, which can be used to classify them (by quantity) into macro or micro nutrients. It’s important to remember that each one is vital for plant growth, simply required in different doses. As a sidenote – this blog is going to be mainly focused upon corn production, but all of these elements are necessary for any plant you’re trying to grow! First I have a couple questions to spark your curiosity about nutrients in plants…    

  • A plant can be deficient in oxygen, how is that possible?
  • Plants need calcium just like humans do. If it doesn’t go towards bone and teeth strength, then what’s its purpose?


Let’s start with the big three: carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. If you’re reading a fertilizer label, they don’t typically advertise for these elements. So, where do plants take them from? Why are they necessary for plant life? Should I be worried that my garden isn’t receiving enough hydrogen? The simple answer is that no one should be concerned about their plants being nutrient deficient in C, H, or O, as long as the plants are surrounded by air!

Carbon (C) – Thanks to many fields of science, we know that carbon is the base for life on Earth! This means that if plants are going to continue to be alive, they must obtain and maintain C. In more direct terms, plants produce and uses chains of carbon with other atoms called carbohydrates, lipids, proteins, and nucleic acids. But what happens if the plant is unable to take in carbon? This would be a very unfavorable scenario for the plant, especially since carbon is essential to photosynthesis. More specifically, without carbon (in the carbon dioxide form) the Calvin cycle wouldn’t occur. This means there’s no G3P, which helps make glucose, and without energy the plant cannot continue to live.

calvin cycle.png

This depicts the Calvin cycle in photosynthesis. Diagram from Khan Academy

Hydrogen (H) – Whenever I think of elemental hydrogen, I don’t normally think of it as a nutrient. I don’t directly eat anything that is marketed as “high in hydrogen”, so how could a plant use it? To start off with, every living organism on Earth needs water (H₂O) to live. Plants use water to obtain hydrogen atoms when splitting H₂O molecules through the light reaction of photosynthesis. The hydrogen ion is then used to create NADPH, which is a crucial ingredient in the Calvin cycle. If a plant is missing this chemical compound, then photosynthesis would cease and the plant would die.

z scheme.png

This shows the light-dependent reactions in photosynthesis, commonly referred to as the z scheme. Image from LibreTexts

Oxygen (O) – Wait a minute – oxygen is a product of photosynthesis, why would a plant need to take in oxygen too? In order to break down food through aerobic respiration, there must be oxygen present. Yes that’s right, plants respire just like humans do! Cells within leaves and stems obtain oxygen atoms that are a product of photosynthesis. However, cells found in areas that aren’t photosynthetically active must find oxygen elsewhere. To solve this issue, roots are able to take in O₂ from the air between soil particles. If the ground is saturated to capacity, then the roots cannot take up oxygen in the gas state. If the area is flooded for longer than 72 hours, it’s likely the plant will run out of oxygen and not recover.


The chemical equation for photosynthesis.

Nitrogen (N) – This is a much more commonly discussed nutrient, especially since it has a huge correlation to high yields in corn production. If you were to walk into a farmer’s field, you would be surrounded by nitrogen in many forms! N₂ is a gas found in the air, whereas NO₃⁻, NH₄⁺, and NH₃ are compounds found in the soil. But if nitrogen is found in the air, why can’t corn absorb it like carbon or oxygen? This is because corn can only take up nitrogen when it’s in a nitrate form, which can be found in solutions and attached to soil particles! When taking a closer look at NO₃⁻, it’s more prone to being lost to the environment due to its negative charge. Soil naturally has a negative charge, which means that a nitrate is more likely to move elsewhere in the environment than wait around to be absorbed by a plant. This is why many agriculturists use anhydrous  ammonia as a N fertilizer, because it contains NH₃ and not NO₃⁻. Overtime soil microorganisms will convert ammonia to a plant available nitrate. Why is nitrogen so important in corn physiology? N is essential to grain fill and development. This means that if the plant is deficient in nitrogen, the kernels and ear won’t fill to their genetic potential. A common symptom of N deficiency is a yellowing midrib on a lower leaf.

nitrogen d.jpg

Nitrogen deficiency in corn. Photo from SDSU Extension

Phosphorus (P) – This is another very important macronutrient! In a similar respect to nitrogen, plants are unable to absorb and utilize the elemental form of P. This creates a problem in fields, because P is most commonly found in a plant unavailable form! Luckily, roots have a symbiotic relationship with Mycorrhizal fungi which are able to turn P into a more usable form. Corn can easily uptake phosphates, and the most common compounds are H₂PO₄⁻ and HPO₄²⁻. Since phosphates have negative charges, they are more prone to leaving the soil than the elemental form (similar to nitrates). This is why synthetic fertilizers that contain significant amounts of phosphorus are delivered in a P₂O₅ compound. Why is phosphorus so important in corn physiology? P is directly correlated to crop maturity, yields, and overall plant growth. More specifically phosphorus is a huge makeup of sugar phosphates, which directly affects ATP. Energy transfer with ATP is crucial, due to it’s role in both RNA and DNA. A lack in P will affect the overall efficiency of any plant. Phosphorus deficiency in corn appears in older leaves and starts as a purple hue. An increase in severity will turn leaf margins brown.

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Phosphorus deficiency in corn. Image from Channel.

Potassium (K) – When applying synthetic fertilizers, it’s common to see potassium in the K₂O form. However, this form is not immediately available to plants. Plants can only take up K+ when it’s in a solution. This form differs from the available compounds of N and P, since potassium is a cationWhy is potassium so important in corn physiology? A deficiency in K can have a multitude of negative affects upon the plant. This could be seen as an increase in susceptibility to drought, temperature stressors, and pests. Agronomists refer to K as “the quality nutrient”, meaning there’s a direct connection to traits like seed vigor, size, color, and shape. To be more specific, potassium helps build cellulose, increase protein content, maintain turgor, and move sugars and starches throughout the plant’s vascular system. K deficiency symptoms start as a yellowing of leaf margins on older leaves, and an increase in severity turns the pale color to a brown necrosis.

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Potassium deficiency in corn. Photo from Thompsons.

Secondary Macronutrients

There are three elements that fall under this category, as they’re needed in higher quantities than micronutrients but lesser amounts than N, P, and K.

Calcium (Ca) – Calcium deficiencies are most common in sandy and/or acidic soils, since the Ca ions can be leached through the soil profile. Similarly to potassium, Ca²⁺ can only be imbibed by plants when in a soil solution. Why is calcium so important in corn physiology? Ca holds a vital role in the creation of cell walls and membranes. Calcium deficiency symptoms are visible in new growth, so in corn this would be around the growing point. It typically appears as a yellowing color, slowed growth, and leaf tips sticking together.

Ca d.jpg

Calcium deficiency in corn. Image from Crop Nutrition.

Magnesium (Mg) – Without Mg, a plant would not be able to photosynthesize. This element is a sizable component within chlorophyll molecules, which is 100% necessary for capturing the sunlight’s energy! Additionally, Mg serves as a phosphorus carrier. Simply put –  if there’s not enough Magnesium then the plant would be unable to uptake P, even if it was available in the soil! Mg²⁺ is the plant available form, and can be heavily affected by the pH and sandiness of soils. Mg deficiencies are first seen in older and lower leaves, starting as a purple interveinal discoloration.

Mg deficiency.jpg

Magnesium deficiency in corn. Photo from The Mosaic Company.

Sulfur (S) – The last, but certainly not least, macronutrient can be absorbed both through the roots and stomata openings. In the environment, sulfur is commonly found in the air as SO₂ and within soil solutions as SO₄²⁻. Unlike the previous secondary macronutrients, this one is taken up as an anion as opposed to a cation. Due to the negative charge on a sulfate molecule, it is mobile in the ground (just like nitrate or phosphate) and can be leached through the soil profile. Why is sulfur so important in corn physiology? Without adequate S, some amino acids and proteins would be unable to synthesize. Sulfur also has a connection to winter hardiness, which is a major trait in certain crops. S deficiency in corn appears as a general yellowing of younger leaves, starting between veins but widening to encompass the entire leaf with increasing severity.


Sulfur deficiency in corn. Image from Successful Farming.

This is merely a glimpse into some of the chemical factors and management systems that a row crop grower oversees each and every year. If you liked this blog or learned something new from it, let us know! Or maybe if you’d like to see a similar breakdown of micronutrients too? Either way I love writing about agronomic science and can’t wait to share another blog with you all!



All About Hydroponics

Most of us have heard the term hydroponics before, but what does it actually mean? According to the dictionary, hydroponics is the cultivation of plants by placing the roots in liquid nutrient solutions rather than in soil. Furthermore, if we break the word into two parts, we have hydro and ponics. Both come from Greek origins, with hydro referring to water and ponics from the word ponein meaning “to labor or toil.” With that being said, hydroponics can be used just about anywhere and with multiple types of plants. In fact, there’s a lot of fruits and vegetables grown in hydroculture systems! Whether it’s a leafy green like lettuce, kale, or spinach to a juicy fruit like strawberries, tomatoes, or blueberries, it can be productively grown without soil!


Even though it may appear to look like one long pot of soil, but these strawberries are planted in an artificial growing medium.

But wait, don’t all plants need soil?

Actually no, plants don’t need soil. Soil is highly beneficial to plants by providing structural support for the roots as well as a substrate to exchange nutrients on, but this can be achieved through various materials. Try thinking of it this way – a plant has W.A.N.T.S. Water, Air, Nutrients, Temperature, Sunlight. With only a single one of these elements missing, a plant cannot survive. For example, if there’s a drought, eventually the plant will lose too much water through transpiration and will wilt and die. But what about if the temperature is too hot or too cold? The plant could easily burn or freeze, which quickly ceases its productivity. And what if a plant is grown in an environment lacking carbon dioxide? The plant wouldn’t be able to continue photosynthesizing, which means there are no sugars being produced. In a hydroponics system, the crops are receiving proper amounts of water, air, nutrients, temperature, and sunlight!

Now that we’re all wondering about hydroponics, it’s time to dive a little bit deeper! There are six main types used in large-scale production systems.

Wick System

Let’s start off with one of the more simple hydroculture methods. A wick system, or more commonly referred to as wicking, is when a plant is growing in the top of a material that is partially submerged in the nutrient solution. This material (it could be cotton, perlite, vermiculite, rockwool, etc.) is absorbing the liquid at the bottom and wicking it upwards towards the plant. This process means the plant’s roots are not wholly submerged in the water, which minimizes the associated risks and chances of this system failing. There are only four main components needed to create this system: wicks, growing medium, a container for the plant to grow in, and a holding container for the nutrient solution. This could easily be done in a classroom or around the house for a little innovative fun!


Photo from Smart Garden Guide.


This picture shows a very simple wick system, one that uses a cotton string to bring nutrient solution to the perlite growing media.  Photo from ehow.

Nutrient Film Technique (NFT)

In a nutrient film technique system, there is a constant flow of nutrient solution over the roots of the plant. This greatly differs from wicking because the roots come in direct contact with the water. One of the biggest risks associated with this system is the chance of drowning out the roots. Due to this, it’s important to ensure the roots are receiving an ample amount of oxygen, whether it be from the air or an air pump in the water. The most efficient and productive NFT systems only submerge the root tips in the water, which means the remaining surface area on the roots are able to breathe. There are a few more components in this system, which makes it a bit complex and complicated. There’s still a reservoir for the nutrient solution and a growing media (perlite, vermiculite, rockwool, etc.). Additionally, there needs to be a channel for the water to run down, an air pump, a water pump, and a return pipe to complete the cycle.


Photo from Green and Vibrant.


This is lettuce grown with NFT. You can even see some algae growth that can accumulate if not cleaned often enough. 

Deep Water Culture (DWC)

In this system, the plant’s roots are also coming into direct contact with the water, but it’s not constantly flowing over them. In a simplistic view, DWC is very similar to wicking, just without the wick. The plants sit in a growing media at the top of the reservoir container, and the roots grow downward to reach the water. The most important and vitally crucial aspect of this system is the air pump. Without an air pump, the plant would take up all the available oxygen in the water solution and essentially suffocate. This air pump allows for continuous oxygenation and really serves as the heart of deep water culture. The best management technique would be to clean out and refill the tank about once a month, or frequent enough to prevent algal growth.


Photo from No Soil Solutions.

Ebb and Flow (Flood and Drain)

Ebb and Flow is my favorite system, simply because of how autonomous it can become once properly set up. In this structure, there is a generally larger reservoir tank which is pumped into a growing bed that holds plants. Instead of letting the water sit and suffocate the plants, it will drain back down into the water tank. This is controlled by a timer and can easily be scheduled for the right frequency and duration of each flooding event. The plants sit in a growing media such as peat moss or rockwool, which absorbs the nutrient solution for extended periods of time. To make your own ebb and flow system, you’ll need a tank for the nutrient solution, a water pump, a growing bed that can be flooded, growing media for the roots, and tubing for the uptake and return pipes. Once this is completed, it should look something like the picture below! This is another great example of cycling water and nutrients through a system!


Photo from Green and Vibrant.

Drip System

The idea behind a drip system is quite similar to that of ebb and flow. The only major difference between the two is that instead of flooding the growing bed from the bottom up, there are small irrigation pipes that provide water from the top of the growing media on downward. This particular cycle still needs a pretty decent sized reservoir to hold the nutrient solution, an effective water pump, a growing bed to hold and drain water, as well as tubing to complete the cycle. Additionally, the grower needs a drip emitter, or at least a pipe with minuscule holes to allow for water to escape the tubes. This water pump can also be set up to a timer, which allows for minimal day-to-day upkeep. The grower can accurately control the quantity of water, nutrients, pH of the solution, and air available to the plants and their roots.


Photo from Home Hydro Systems.

Aeroponic System

Wait a minute, the prefixes aero and hydro mean two completely different things! How can aeroponics be considered a type of hydroponics? An aeroponic system still has the main components of every other type of hydroculture system, which includes exposing the roots to a nutrient solution without utilizing soil. When using an aeroponics setup, this allows for the most oxygen exchange with the roots since they are never fully submerged underwater. After learning about the five previous systems of hydroponics and how they work, you can probably guess the similarities and differences in this specific one! Instead of flooding a growing bed or utilizing a drip emitter, the nutrient solution is distributed through misters. These misters are positioned beneath the roots and growing media, and when turned on will coat all surfaces in a thin film of water droplets. This method still provides the necessary nutrients and water to the plants, without taking away any of the other W.A.N.T.S. The similarities include the basics of most hydroponic systems: having a good sized tank for holding the water solution, a growing bed and medium for the plants, a working water pump, as well as small tubing to connect everything.


Photo from Home Hydro Systems.

I’d love to give you all recommendations on which system works the best and some specific management techniques, but alas I’m still learning in those areas. Some important takeaways are:

  1. Plants can be grown without soil, but still need a medium to exchange nutrients on.
  2. Hydroponics can be used in many situations, from commercial fruit production to explaining simplistic ideas in a classroom setting.
  3. Each system is not necessarily a ‘one size fits all’ scenario. It may take time and practice to perfect your system for a particular plant!


P.S. If any of you have experience growing hydroponics or a preferred system that works better than others, feel free to share it in the comments!

How Does Agriculture Connect to Standards?

School is out, which means it’s teacher professional development season!

During the last two weeks, we’ve held four teacher workshops across the state. More than 130 teachers have spent two days immersed in learning about agriculture. They toured farms and agribusinesses, participated in hands-on lessons, experienced FarmChat® from a student’s perspective, discovered new resources, and spent time discussing ideas to incorporate agriculture into lessons during the coming school year.

Almost every time we present to teachers we tell them not to think of agriculture as one more thing on their list of things to teach. With a jam-packed schedule of reading, writing, math, science, social studies, PE, guidance, music, and art – there’s not room in the school day to add one more thing. Instead, we encourage teachers to think about how they can teach their current subjects through an agriculture lens. To do this, their agriculture-based lessons must align to the Iowa Core.The Iowa Agriculture Literacy Foundation has spent the last five years doing just that – developing lesson plans and resources that are aligned to science, social studies, math, and language arts standards. Our goal is to make it easier for teachers to incorporate agriculture topics into their existing curriculum.

At this summer’s teacher professional development workshops, we are asking teachers to develop a concept map illustrating how agriculture connects to what they teach. We introduce the guide below on the first day and challenge them to think about how the topics and resources they discover during the workshop connect to their existing science and/or social studies units.

During the next two days, we eagerly watch the concept maps grow as teachers add existing resources and ideas for new lessons. We intended to collect their concept maps at the end of the workshop, but most teachers have not wanted to let them go. They want to keep them as an easy reminder of the resources that they can “plug and play” into units during the upcoming school-year.

While we didn’t collect their concept maps, we did take pictures! We will use them as inspiration for future lesson plans and resources. I also plan to share some of them in a series of blog posts on agriculture connections to elementary, middle, and high school science and social studies standards.I’ll feature one concept map today, as a sneak peek to the many ideas that will be introduced in future posts.

This concept map was created by a 3rd-grade teacher at the first workshop of the summer.

I love how she used the entire page and identified agriculture connections to every science and social studies unit that she teaches!Do you see the numbers in the cloud-shaped outline? Those are the specific Iowa Core standards covered in each unit.

In social studies, she identified agriculture topics and resources for units on supply and demand, natural resources, and economic decisions. Agriculture will be the theme that weaves these three units together as they learn to discover how weather and soil impact farming, how crops and grain are bought and sold, and how agriculture impacts our local and distant economies.

In science, students will discover the real-world applications of simple machines as they identify them in farm equipment and learn how they make work easier. The 3rd-grade growing unit will focus on plants and animals raised on farms. Students will do hands-on investigations with soybeans and do a FarmChat® program to learn about livestock.

By using agriculture topics in both social studies and science, these two subjects are no longer stand-alone sections of the school day. Instead, they are woven together as students explore both the science and economics of the crops, livestock, and natural resources.


Places To Take Your Kids This Summer (And Some Fun Ag-tivities To Do When You Get There)

For me, summer has always brought relief. The schedule is relaxed. There is less pressure to get things done. Our family has more freedom to explore. But after a week or so, as a parent I begin to wonder, “am I letting my kids lose what they have learned?” “Are we beginning the dreaded ‘summer slide’?” “How can I sneak some education into their little Jell-O minds before they set?” Why not fill this summer with these delightful ag-ventures?

• Make it a point to check out your local county fair. These are a great time to get a look at different kinds of farm animals. You can tour building after building of suffolk sheepsheep, cows, goats, rabbits, chickens and more. Many are free to attend, and you can be sure to find one near you.

Introduce your young learners to the livestock they will encounter with the lesson, Animal Life Cycles. The activities include animal flash cards as well as excellent background information. Comparing similarities and differences between groups of animals is one fun way to get kids talking about the animals at the fair. Also in the lesson is a section called “Did you know?”

  • Discovering some interesting Ag Facts could include:
     Looking for animals that don’t have upper teeth in the front of their mouth (incisors). Answer: goats, sheep, and cows
     Finding a breed of chicken called the Aracauna lays eggs that are a light blue or green color.
     Asking what the word “cow” actually means? It is often used to refer to cattle in general, however, cow actually refers to female cattle who have had a calf.

Visit a processing plant or local locker. If you and your family eat meat, this might be a good way to help your children understand where their food comes from. Contact a butcher in your area to see if they would give a tour of their facility. Most processing plants will be able to show you how the meat from each animal is used. Lessons like From Pig to Bacon help kids learn about the many items that come from pigs, not just bacon. Sausage, ham, Canadian bacon, pork chops, cosmetics, gelatin, crayons, and chalk, a well as insulin and even heart valves are produced from pigs.

• Find a farmer willing to give a tour. Farms are busy places and are usually run by people who truly love their jobs. field on curve with two treesFarmers need to be experienced in a variety of things. From fixing fences to caring for sick animals, a farmer needs the skill and know how to do it all. In this activity sheet, Many Hats of an Iowa Farmer, your kids can get an idea of just how many hats an Iowa farmer wears. No matter how busy, I’ve yet to meet a farmer who isn’t willing to take a few minutes of their day to educate someone about the career that is more like a lifestyle. Remember, on your tour to wear chore clothes and sturdy shoes. The farm is no place for flip-flops.

Purchase produce from a farmer’s market. This is an area where cash is welcome, so let your kids do the math. Have them select something new and be responsible for making their purchase. Adding, subtracting, and simple multiplying can all be accomplished with your purchase (plus, you’ll be supporting local farmers). Here’s a fun activity called Eat ‘Em Up. You and your kids can review the plant parts that they eat, including roots, stems, flowers, leaves, fruit, and seeds. You can then choose a favorite fruit or vegetable to feature in a healthy recipe and prepare it with your family.

• If your little one is into big machinery, check out these museums.

It takes a lot of equipment to get a crop in and the history of those machines is really quite amazing. There is a lot of engineering behind some of these agricultural marvels. Kids love to learn how things work, and a tour of a tractor museum could be a great way to spark their interest, perhaps in building something of their own.

tractorsIn the lesson, Terrific Tractors, children will learn vocabulary words like tractor, planter, sprayer, cultivator, combine, and grain wagon as well as discover what each one does. Encourage your family to recognize the simple machines that are behind the farmers most useful tools.

Find a nursery or garden center. Planting a tree is a great way to teach children patience. It can make a lasting impact as a child watches their tree grow year after year. Beginning quite small as a seed and soon, even outgrowing them. You may want to visit a farm that sells evergreens and Discover Christmas Trees.

You might not be thinking of Christmas in the summer, but all-around Iowa, farmers are caring for the trees that may end up in your living room this winter. Here’s a guessing game you can play with your kids before you arrive. Ask your kids if they can name the crop after the clues you provide.

tree-privacy-screen-02o It is harvested one time per year.
o It is not a food crop.
o It is not produced by animals. (If needed, help your kids conclude that it is produced by plants.)
o It takes 6-10 years to grow.
o It has needles instead of leaves.
o It is primarily green and cone-shaped.
o It is most associated with the Christmas holiday.
o What is it? (a Christmas tree!)

Visit the World Food Prize building in Des Moines. I recently had the opportunity to visit and it was one of the most impactful tours I had ever been on. Learning the stories of the men and women who pioneered Iowa agriculture is really quite amazing. While walking through thecorner crops historical building there was something around every corner. The magnificent rotunda actually uses the four corners to tell the story, and origins, of four primary crops involved in feeding the world: wheat, rice, corn, and soy.

When I tell myself, “I can’t wait to make time to take my kids there,” I definitely mean it. I really shouldn’t wait. The importance of this one summer visit could make a huge difference in the way they see the jobs their father and I do. Him as a farmer and me as an agriculture literacy educator. The sense of pride I felt as I looked at the wonderful exhibits is hard to explain. It really made me feel like part of something bigger, something global.globe

Which one of these places will you visit this summer? Leave a comment in the section below to share your favorite Iowa Ag-venture.


What Do They Mean? Corn Vocabulary

As with many industries, there’s lots of jargon and learned vocabulary in agriculture. We’ve spent some time unpacking cattle-related vocabulary in previous blog posts, which you can find here, here, and here. However, recently I had an interaction where I was using some corn-related jargon and had to back up and explain what I meant. That made me realize how many pieces of the corn industry have vocab words many people don’t know! Here’s an outline of some of the big terms and what they mean.


Maize: Maize just means corn! For our international friends, maize may actually be the preferred term.

Husk: The husk of a corn plant is the leaves that grow around and protect the ear. When we buy fresh sweet corn, the husks are green and pliable. When farmers harvest their field corn in the fall, the husks are brown, dry, and brittle.

Husk can also be a verb and refer to when someone removes the husk from corn before they use it. People may also say they “shuck” corn when they do this.

Stalk: The stalk is the main stem of the plant. Some corn plants will grow up to 8 feet tall and most of that height is from the stalk.

Tassel: The tassel is the male flower portion of the corn plant. The corn plant is interesting because it has both male and female flower parts, but they are not part of the same flower. The tassel grows out of the top of the plant, and the female part of the flower (the ear) grows nestled between the leaves and stalk of the plant.


Detasseling: Many people have had jobs detasseling corn. As it sounds, it means removing the tassel from the plant! This is not done on every farm, however. This is only done when farmers are growing corn that will be used for seed to plant new fields. Farmers sometimes cross-breed two different types of corn and want to make sure the cross happens correctly. They contract with seed companies and those companies provide the genetics for growing this seed corn.

When farmers or researchers are crossbreeding varieties like this, they will plant a small amount of “male rows” that will keep their tassels, and a larger amount of “female rows” that will have their tassels removed. This ensures the ears of the female rows are only being pollinated by the tassels on the male rows. This is how we get hybrid plants!

Conservation till: Tillage has historically been used as a way to warm up the soil, create a nice seedbed for seed-to-soil contact, reduce soil compaction, and control weeds. However, we now know that tillage also increases erosion and negatively impacts the natural soil structure. Conservation tillage is a relatively new idea for how to get the best of both worlds. Maybe a farmer will till only where they plant their seed or will use a type of tillage that doesn’t disturb as much of the soil as conventional methods. There are lots of conservation tillage options.

No-till: No-till is another method of field management, but in this method, they don’t till at all! Farmers who don’t till may use a grain drill fitted on their planter to plant their seeds and may be more dependent on chemical weed control. However, they will gain benefits of reduced erosion (benefiting water quality) and see an improvement in soil health.


Trash: If you hear a farmer talk about trash on their field, you may think they have a littering problem. But likely, they are just talking about leftover plant residue from previous years. In fact, planters can have angled, toothed discs that help clear the soil of this trash to ensure the seed gets good soil contact. Though these are formally called row cleaners, these discs are sometimes called trash wheels or trash whippers.

Silage: Silage is an interesting corn term. Corn silage is harvested differently than the grain you may see at a grain cooperative. Silage is the entire corn plant that is harvested while green in the summer. The whole plant is chopped up and held in an airtight container (like a silo, silage bag, or silage pit) to ferment. It is then stored and used as cattle feed throughout the year. It smells amazing, and cattle love it because the fermentation makes it slightly sweet.

Silo: A silo is a tall, metal, cement, or clay structure originally used to ferment silage. Though silos aren’t as popular as they used to be (many farmers today use silage pits or silage bags), they are a popular addition to farm scenes in storybooks.

Side-dress: This term doesn’t mean anything about clothes. It has to do with fertilizing! It has become clear that for both financial and environmental reasons, it is important to put fertilizer where it will be safe from the elements and actually reach the crop when the crop needs it.

This is where side-dressing comes in. This is the term used for the placement of fertilizer that is two inches beside and two inches below the seed. Farmers may side-dress nitrogen shortly after (or even during) planting, to make sure that that nitrogen is there for the plant as soon as those roots start to grow.

Anhydrous: Nitrogen is the most limiting nutrient for corn. Anhydrous ammonia is the most affordable form of this nutrient for farmers to use. It comes in large tanks that you may see at cooperatives or in fields. You may hear farmers talk about seeing the anhydrous tanks out or getting anhydrous on their fields. They just mean nitrogen fertilizer!


Sprayer: A sprayer is a large piece of equipment that helps farmers spray their fields for weeds or pests. They have tall, skinny wheels, and a very high clearance, so they can be driven through corn fields even when the crop is fully grown. The boom on the sprayer can be raised and lowered, the nozzles can be changed for different chemical applications, and applications can even be altered while the machine is turning!

VRT or Variable Rate Technology: VRT is a really cool technology that is part of the precision agriculture movement. It essentially means that nutrients, pesticides, or other applications are only applied at the exact place where they are needed. Variable Rate Technology helps with this by reading maps and following GPS signals to understand things such as one spot in a field needing less nitrogen than another, and will adjust the rate applied to the field accordingly.

Combine: A combine is a machine that harvests the corn crop. To harvest corn, a combine uses a corn header, which looks like it has big teeth or witch-y fingers. The row of corn is guided in between the fingers, the plant is cut off and guided inside the machine, where the ear is picked, husked, and the kernels are shelled, or knocked loose from the cob. Then, the kernels are stored in the hopper, and the rest of the plant material is put back onto the field.


Grain bin: A grain bin is a big, round, metal, corrugated structure that houses grain. Though not every farmer has a grain bin, they can give a farmer flexibility of when they can sell their crop. Without a grain bin or similar grain storage facility, a farmer would have to sell their grain as soon as they harvested it or pay to have someone else store it for them.


Stover: This is what we call all of the corn plant material that is left on the field after harvest. This is primarily the dried stalk and leaves of the plant. The plant material can protect the soil from the elements and provides extra organic material to the soil (which translates into healthier soil with more nutrients).

Dock: If a farmer goes to sell their corn at a cooperative and it is damaged, contains inert material (like rocks or weed seed), or is too wet, their price may be docked. Naturally, farmers don’t want that, so they work to harvest and sell high-quality corn.


Are there any other terms you’ve been wondering about? Let us know, and you might see it in a future blog!