Helping Students Relate to Lessons about Agriculture

“Oh! I get it!” These sweet words are music to a teacher’s ear. The exclamation of understanding that erupts from a student might just be the reason teachers continue their dedicated service. It doesn’t matter whether the child had been working on a subject for two weeks or two minutes, the joy is the same. This student understands!

As an Agriculture in the Classroom coordinator it is always interesting spending time in classrooms. Grade to grade and school to school, lesson topics tend to vary wildly. From learning about pumpkins with PreK, to mixing up soil with third graders, and then creating lessons on lavender as a specialty crop for middle school students, agriculture is the underlying principle in all of our lessons. It’s really one of the most significant things in our lives. So how do you get kids interested in agriculture? How do you help them understand the role food, fuels, and fibers play in their lives. And finally, guide them to find their own role in agriculture?

There are many ways to make agriculture relatable to students:

  1. Compare agriculture vocabulary with something they already know about.

How big is an acre?

“Acre” is a word not many kinds would know. Plus mentioin43,560 square feet is kind of hard to imagine. However, even the youngest of learners can recognize the familiar 100 yards of a football field (not including the end zones).

How much corn is in a bushel?

To all my fellow agriculture enthusiasts, I am about to make a confession. I grew up in the city and had no idea what a bushel of corn was. And I didn’t have a clue what it weighed. I had seen antique stores sell “bushel baskets” and I thought a dozen ears of corn would fit nicely, so in my agriculturally illiterate mind… 12. Twelve ears of corn was a bushel. Wasn’t I amazed to discover it’s more like 112. And it weighs 56 pounds. Or as much as an eight-year-old.

How much does a combine weigh?

Kids are impressed by the giant equipment that farmers use to grow the food that feeds the world. Tractor wheels taller than a grown up and combines as tall as a small house are awe inspiring. But an educator can’t always bring these things into the classroom with them. Pictures are great and a chance to have a FarmChat® virtual field trip is even better. Otherwise, make your words descriptive and compare it to something they already know.  A John Deere combine, depending on the model, might weight 30,000 pounds, that’s as much as two school busses, or six elephants.

2. Bring lots of examples with you to class or have lots of pictures available for your virtual lesson. You can describe the difference between treated and untreated soybean seed, or you can show students. You can talk about the nitrogen fixing nodules on the roots of a soybean plant, or you can bring in examples, pulled out of the field that very morning.

3. Use the changing seasons to teach about what is happening on the farm. In November, we talk turkey. In January, it’s winter on the farm. Spring is an excellent opportunity to talk about the beginning of life cycles. Egg hatching programs and the baby chicks offer a hands-on opportunity for kids to learn about what happens in an animal’s lifecycle.

So whether you are a born and bred city gal like me, or an experienced farmer who’s taken a plow around a field a time or two, we can all agree agriculture is relatable and important to students. It’s our job to help them understand how and why.


What a Perfect Time for a FarmChat® Virtual Field Trip!

Students in Iowa have returned to school. Some classes are being held in person while some students are connecting with teachers online. No matter what the school day looks like, an opportunity to visit a real farm is hard to pass up. Sign the permission slips? Pack the lunches? Send home reminders to wear layers and appropriate shoes? Load up the buses? Drive for miles and miles IF the weather is right? Or… skip all the hassle and schedule a FarmChat® virtual field trip! 

While actual field trips require days, if not weeks of planning and are being postponed due to the pandemic, a FarmChat® program is the ideal alternative solution. FarmChat®, or a virtual field trip, is a program that utilizes technology (Skype, FaceTime and other software platforms) to bring the farm experience directly into school classrooms. Using a laptop at the school and a mobile device at the farm, students connect with and directly speak with the farmer. Students can see the farm and ask the farmer questions. They can even virtually ride along in the combine or tour a livestock barn all from the safety and security of their classroom. A virtual field trip!

Benefits of a FarmChat® virtual field trip include:

  • Safety. Most working farms are not able to host large number of students. Real farms can hold real dangers if students have not been properly instructed about farm safety. Teachers are able to focus on the topics intended and the learning if students are not required to be shepherded from place to place.
  • Experiences. It can be difficult or impossible to show 25-30 students the same thing at the same time. While 2-3 are watching a cow be milked the rest of a class may decide to test out their “waterproof” boots in a nearby puddle. Focusing on the screen in a classroom allows the entire group to experience the details as if they were watching in person. Also, a working farm has many different sights, sounds, and smells. By visiting from their classrooms, students can see and hear the farmer better then if they were standing in a large group.
  • Saving time. The virtual field trip will last around 20-30 minutes. In that time kids can focus on the experience, and then return to their regularly scheduled day. This means less time away from school and more time to discuss what students have learned.
  • No permission slips. Having a virtual field trips allows students to explore a real farm, without leaving the school grounds.
  • No transportation costs. Students are engaged and focused on the farm directly from their desks. With no need to find a bus driver or arrange for transportation, schools are not limited by funding.
  • Standards. By taking students on a virtual field trip they are able to make real world connections to the topics they are learning in school.

Harrison County farmer explains the process, as well as some of the challenges, of baling hay during a summer FarmChat®.

Local farmers are interested in sharing what they do. And teachers want to teach about local crops and livestock. Connecting the components has never been easier and is only limited by the connectivity of a cellular network. Here is a list of frequently asked questions that can help with planning a FarmChat® program.

Start planning your FarmChat® a virtual farm experience today. Reach out to your local county coordinator and let your virtual ag-venture begin.


Tips for Reading to Students

Whether a book is read in person, over the phone, or even on a virtual platform, reading aloud to students can be a very engaging experience. It is one of my favorite things to do when I visit a classroom. You can almost feel the students’ anticipation if it is a book they have read. And if it’s one they are not familiar with? Then you can see their eyes alight with excitement, eager to experience something new.

Reading books to students may seem like an easy task, but there are several things that you can do to prepare and practice. This will make it the best experience possible for both you and the students.

Things you can do to prepare:

  • Make sure you are comfortable with the book. Go ahead and try a practice read before you are in front of a room full of students. This will help with fluency and will allow you to engage with students and not just be focused on the text.
  • Time how long the book takes to read out loud. A child’s attention span can last approximately two to five minutes per year of their age. For example, a 5-year-old could be expected to listen 10 to 25 minutes at a time. Pick a book that is best suited for the age of the students. Of course every child is different, so while you are reading your book, you will need to be reading your audience. (More tips below on how to engage wandering listeners.)
  • Books can be a great way to introduce students to agriculture and agricultural themes. While a trip to a farm could be overstimulating for some students, sitting in their classroom learning about farm animals could be a safe way to explore tractors, cattle, and crops. Need a few ideas? Check out the IALF lending library for books on beef, corn, dairy, the environment, farms, food, history, plants, pigs, poultry, soy, technology and so much more. Complete kits and teacher guides may also be available to check out.
  • If you are looking for ways to increase your classroom library with accurate agriculture books, why not check out the Agriculture in the Classroom Teacher Supplement Grant Program?

Tips to improve the read-aloud experience:

Now that you have selected and practiced reading an age-appropriate agriculturally accurate book, it’s time to read to students.

  • Always begin by reading the names of both the author and the illustrator. Children as young as three can begin to identify the author as “the one who wrote the story” and the illustrator as “the one who drew the pictures”. Students will become familiar with these words if you consistently use this method during read-alouds.  
  • Be sure to pause after each page, allowing the students to closely observe the illustrations. Taking in the pictures can help a student learn something new about the story each time it is read.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask questions, or even pause if you think some explanation is needed. Questions like, “have you ever seen a cow?” or “how do you think he feels about flying from farm to farm?” could be good questions to engage your audience. If you are looking to gauge involvement without a lot of discussion, you could always ask students to raise their hands. “By a show of hands, who would like to drive this tractor?”
  • Get moving! Just because you are reading a book does not mean you need to be sitting. Stand up during exciting parts or even move around the room to draw students into the story. Are the characters in the book on a long dirt road? Maybe move to another end of the room. Does a part seem animated? Move the book “bump”, “zoom”, or “swish” depending on what the characters are doing or what action you are trying to portray.
  • Add sound effects when appropriate and don’t forget to give different characters different voices. Don’t worry about sounding silly, that’s the point. Reading is FUN and young learners will enjoy seeing you enjoying reading.
  • Sitting still can be an issue for active learners. Help them contain their wiggles by encouraging them. Have students act out parts with you. Even sitting down, they can use arms to climb up a grain bin or toss the hay with a pitchfork. You might even call on a student to be your book holder or page turner giving them a job, which focuses their attention.

This fall will bring many challenges as we return to school in person, online, or even a hybrid combination of the two. Reading out loud to your class can help to calm those first day of school jitters (theirs and yours). So check out an age appropriate agriculturally accurate book. I wish you good luck! And happy reading!  


Milk for Cereal, Cookies, and… Fertilizer?

Nine gallons. Yep, you read that correct – nine. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9. My family of four will go through nine gallons of milk a week. It is the determining factor of when we go to the grocery store. “The milk gauge is on E” is the phrase we use. So it’s off to the market. During this time of social distancing this weekly chore is completed with military precision. Face mask? Check. Hand sanitizer? Check. List? Check. One credit card and one store loyalty card? Double check. I push my cart up and down the one directional aisles not stopping to visit, just getting the job done. Then I get to the dairy section. If it is fully stocked, I’ll grab what we need for the week. If not, I’ll just grab four or five gallons and know I’ll have to make a “quick milk run” sometime in the next few days. So when I discovered farmers were having to dump milk, I had to find out why.
You might wonder why we go to the store for milk. After all, we raise cows on our farm. Why not milk our own cows? Well, we raise beef cattle. Yes, they are cows and yes, they do make milk for their calves, but not an abundance of milk like dairy cows produce. Since we do not have a dairy we do not have the necessary equipment needed to collect the milk. And we have no way to process our cow’s milk.


Kindergarten students try their hands at milking using water and a glove.

Why does cow’s milk need to be processed?

The milk we purchase at the store has gone through a process called pasteurization. This process heats the milk to kill the bacteria. Raw milk, or unpasteurized milk, can contain dangerous microorganisms. Not something that you would want to serve to your family.

In addition to being pasteurized, milk is homogenized, passed through screens with small holes, breaking the milk fat down into smaller particles. This creates a more uniform liquid and is much nicer to drink. You can drink non-homogenized milk by skimming the cream layers off the top, or by shaking it vigorously to evenly distribute the cream.

There are several steps involved to get milk from the farm to the grocery store. I prefer milk from the grocery. The amount of time it would take me to hand milk over a gallon a day, heat it to the proper temperature, skim and/or shake the milk, would not allow me time to complete my job as an agriculture classroom coordinator. This is the reason why we need dairy farmers. Every one of us is allowed the privilege of working a job we want because we have entrusted a farmer with the job of feeding our families.

Photo one

Reading the book, The Milk Makers, to a class of students

Part of my job involves teaching students about where milk comes from. In the lesson All About Milk! (and milk alternatives) students discover the different varieties of milks and milk alternatives available. We read about dairy farmers that raise cows and milk them 2-3 times a day. We discuss how milk is consumed or processed into ice cream, butter, yogurt, and other dairy products. Then the students learn milk is a good source of protein, vitamins and minerals – especially calcium and is rich in potassium and vitamin B12. We talk about how Vitamin D is also added to milk to help with the absorption of calcium. Next, we taste test different samples, chart which types we like best, and read the book The Milk Makers by Gail Gibbons.

Milk Makers

The Milk Makers by Gail Gibbons

Why is milk being dumped?

Due to COVID-19 virus, schools and restaurants were asked to close operations to help “flatten the curve” so our healthcare system wasn’t overwhelmed. This caused our dairy needs to shift.

Keiko Tanaka, a professor of Rural Sociology at the University of Kentucky, authored an article that discusses the challenges the milk industry is currently undergoing. In the article, Why Farmers Dump Food, she underscored that of the two main supply-chains in the U.S. food industry – one for household consumption and the other for commercial use – more than half the spending comes from the large-scale commercial side, which has been practically decimated.

And making an immediate shift for the sudden demand change, she noted, is far from simple. Milk processors, for example, “do not have the equipment to package [excess milk] into smaller containers for grocery stores and retail use” when there has been already a glut of cheese and other dairy products with longer shelf lives. Like vegetable and fruit farmers, dairy farmers have little choice but to dump excess milk,” Keiko and her team of researchers stated.
So what do you do when you have thousands of gallons of milk and the processing plants you used to deliver to are not accepting milk? Farmers are industrious and some are turning lemons into lemonade. More specifically, milk into fertilizer.

Where and how to use it?

Farmers grow crops that require nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium. And milk contains all three. And, these three nutrients are readily available, unlike manure which contains undigested food that will need to break down before it can fertilize the soil. One thousand gallons of mike can contain 44 pounds of nitrogen, 18 pounds of phosphorous, and 17 pounds of potassium. By using the correct rates for their crop, farmers are recycling surplus milk.

There are some downsides to this alternative fertilizer. Milk has a very high biochemical oxygen demand. That means it will consume oxygen from waterways. Farmers need to be sure they are not applying it where it could run off and damage ponds or streams and potentially kill aquatic life. Surface application is an option, but if you’ve ever left the milk out too long you know it can start to smell bad. Milk degrades quickly, so one way to avoid the rotten smell is by injecting the milk directly into the field. While using milk this way is not ideal, it is a way for some farmers to recoup financial losses that occurred by having to dump gallons and gallons of milk.

Next time you pour your milk on your cereal, or dunk your chocolate chip cookie into a tall, icy cold glass of milk, I hope you can appreciate what went into providing that milk for your use. And maybe think of the farmers who had to try and do the best they could with it, using it to produce another crop. This is what farmers do. They work the hardest they can each year, raising their crops and caring for their livestock, and are always looking ahead to what they can do next year.


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.


6 Reasons to Apply for an Agriculture in the Classroom Teacher Supplement Grant

We know that teachers are always looking for new ways to engage students, but funding for classroom resources is limited.  We have a solution!

This week we kicked off another year of the Agriculture in the Classroom Teacher Supplement Program. Since 2003, teachers have utilized these grants to fund innovative lessons, classroom resources, outreach programs, field trips and more!

With funding from the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation, the Iowa Agriculture Literacy Foundation offers $200 grants to support the integration of agriculture into preschool-12th grade in-school and afterschool programs. The subject-area focus of the grant changes each year to allow a variety of projects to receive funding and encourage teachers to consider incorporate agriculture across the curriculum. This year’s focus areas are agriculture in literacy/language arts OR agriculture in social studies.

Not convinced yet, here’s a few reasons to apply:

1.  Agriculture is a topic students can easily connect with because it is all around us! Nearly everything we eat, wear, use — even the fuel that powers cars and buses — comes from plants and animals grown on farms.

2.   Agriculture provides real-world connections to Iowa Core Standards.  Teaching about agriculture in Iowa is an ideal way for students to learn what their state is all about and provide real-life connections to all subjects.

  • Tip:  On the application, be sure to specifically describe what your students will learn about agriculture through your project– not just how a topic, like Iowa history or technology, relates to agriculture.

3.  Social Studies, Social Studies, Social Studies!  Iowa recently adopted new social studies standards, and many have strong connections to agriculture!  Here’s just few examples:

-1st Grade: Describe the diverse cultural makeup of Iowa’s past and present in the local community, including indigenous and agricultural communities. (SS.1.23)

-2nd Grade: Identify how people use natural resources to produce goods and services. (SS.2.12)

-4th Grade: Explain how Iowa’s agriculture has changed over time. (SS.4.26)

-6th Grade: Explain how changes in transportation, communication, and technology influence the movement of people, goods, and ideas in various countries. (SS.6.18)

-7th Grade: Analyze the role that Iowa plays in contemporary global issues. (SS.7.27)

  • Tip: Take a look at the National Agriculture Literacy Outcomes for more ideas about what students should know about agriculture as it relates to the study of culture, society, economy and geography. Social Studies content is in orange print.

4.  It’s a great way to build your classroom library. Books are a perfect way for students to learn about agriculture! Incorporate books with an agricultural theme into a language arts or social studies lesson described in the application.  Then add them to your classroom library to be enjoyed by students for years to come.

  • Tip: Take a look at the books in the Iowa Agriculture Literacy Foundation’s Lending Library for ideas. We have over 200 titles, and you can even check them out to review before buying your own.

5.  Funding for field trips is hard to come by. Take students to learn about agriculture first-hand at a farm, museum or historic site. Iowa’s many agriculture museums and historic sites offer tours and self-guided opportunities to learn about Iowa’s agricultural history.

  • Tip:  Be sure to include what you will do in the classroom before and after the field trip to make the most of the learning experience.  If you are learning about agriculture long-ago during the field trip, describe ways your students will compare and contrast that to farming today once they return.

6.  It’s easy!  Many grant applications take hours to complete and require long essays, spreadsheets with details budgets, administrator approval, and more.  Not this one! It only has 10 questions, and most have short answers. Head on over to the application page, create a log-in, and get started.

  • Tip:  Take a look at the application questions now, think about project ideas, and return later to finish. Once you start the application, you can save and return as often as necessary before January 10, 2018.



7 Things You Should Know about Farming and Agriculture


I begin nearly every program I lead with the same question. “What is agriculture?” I’ve heard MANY answers over the years, but the most unique and humorous response came while doing a summer program at an elementary school in Des Moines a few weeks ago. After asking “What is agriculture?” a third-grade boy raised his hand with utmost excitement and said, “It’s when you look up at the stars with a telephone!” He was thinking of a big word that starts with A, but not the one I had in mind.

While this example is funny, his understanding of agriculture was similar to most upper elementary and even older students I encounter. Other very common answers are “nature” or something involving “cultures.”

Usually someone in the group eventually says farming, but with a few follow up questions I discover that most don’t realize what farmers do, and that there are a lot of other good jobs in agriculture, besides the job of a farmer.

Early in my agriculture literacy career a teacher in an urban school district passionately told me that she wants her students to understand the knowledge and skills that it takes to work in agriculture. During the conversation she said, “Many of my students think that anyone with dirty hands is not smart. That’s just not true. My grandfather was a farmer, and he was the smartest person I’ve ever met.”

For the last 10 years, I’ve been compiling a list of what I wish people knew about farming, farmers, and agriculture in my head. I’ve finally written it down to share.

7 Things You Should Know about Farming and Agriculture

1. Agriculture is everything involved with growing plants and animals to be used for something else. This is not the definition you’ll find in the dictionary, but it is practical and accurate. It encompasses production agriculture, but also everything before and after the farm too.

Agriculture includes science, technology, and engineering. It is the genetics work used to improve the seeds and animals farmers purchase. It is the development, design, production and sales of everything farmers use – tractors, equipment, buildings, fertilizer, and more.

Agriculture includes business. It is the financial and legal aspects of acquiring land and other assets needed to farm. It is the marketing, sales and distribution of the plants and animals produced.

2. Nearly everything we eat, wear and use came from a plant or an animal raised on a farm. I always ask, but I have yet to have a student name something they eat that doesn’t come from a plant or an animal. And everything except wild caught fish, shellfish, and wild game came from a farm.

 I often have students look around their classroom and name something that comes from a farm. At first they are stumped, but once we talk about wood, cotton, and corn and soybean ingredients in industrial products they realize the list is long. Aside from metal, stone, and plastics made from petroleum, nearly everything we use includes something from a plant or animal raised on a farm.

3. Farming is a job, a way to earn money. This seems obvious, right?  Well, I discovered many years ago that students don’t always think of farming as a source of income. Many think farmers raise crops and livestock to feed their families, but that’s it. They don’t realize that they sell most or all of what they produce to earn a living. This enables them to pay their family’s bills, purchase food at the grocery store, and buy clothes at the mall, just like the rest of us.

farmchatDuring a FarmChat® program a few years ago, a 7th grade student asked the farmer where he buys stuff.  The farmer explained where he gets farm supplies – tractor parts, seed, etc. The student followed up, “No. Where do you get clothes, food, and stuff for your house?” The farmer smiled, looked down at his Under Armor sweatshirt and said, “I got this shirt at Scheels. The one not too far from your school. I shop at the same places you do.”

4. Farms today are specialized, not like most portrayed in story books. When my grandparents were my age, farms looked like those in children’s books. They raised a little of everything on their farm. They made a good living off 160 acres of crops, a few cows, laying hens, and some pigs. Add in my grandma’s large garden, and the farm produced nearly everything their family of 10 ate as well. Over the years, their farm changed. As they invested in tractors and other equipment, they focused their efforts to make the most of those investments. The same is true today. If farmers raise livestock, they usually raise one type. This enables them to acquire the facilities, technology, knowledge and skills needed to produce it, and produce it well.

5. Farming is high-tech. Farmers use iPads, laptops, drones, robots, and more. Many livestock barns have Wi-Fi, web-cams, and automated feed and climate control systems. Farmers can monitor a cow in labor or adjust the temperature in a barn from their smart phones. If the power goes out, back-up generators automatically start and the farmer is alerted with a text. This technology enables farmers to be efficient and provide precise care to their animals.inside cropped

6. Farmers are smart. They are problem solvers. They use math often. Most are tech savvy. They must have a good business sense to be successful.

70% of farmers have a higher education including a college diploma or trade/vocational certificate. Some choose an agriculture major like agronomy or animal science, but others study business, mechanics, or another area to hone particular skills that will benefit their family’s farming operation.

7. Farmers care about the land and water. Several years ago I took a group of college students taking an environmental science class to visit a cattle farm and see conservation practices first-hand. During the visit, the farmer told the students “This land isn’t mine.”  I watched the students exchange puzzled looks since he had just told them that the farm has been in his family for generations. The farmer then continued, “Well, I own it, but it’s not mine. I am borrowing it from my son. I want to pass it on to him in as good or better condition than I received it from my dad.” This statement left a lasting impression on me, as I’m sure it did the students too.

sprayingOver the 4th of July I visited my parents’ farm and took my kids, nieces, and nephews fishing in their farm pond.  As we were fishing, I looked up and saw my brother spraying herbicide in the field behind the pond.  I took a picture to try to capture the whole scene.  Although it’s hard to see the sprayer in the picture, I think it is impactful.  My brother is spraying chemicals on the field that drains into the family’s farm pond where his kids fish and swim.  Obviously, he wouldn’t do this if he didn’t think it was safe. Farmers use utmost caution and regard for safety when making decisions about farming practices.  After all, it affects their families too.

 Now it’s your turn.  What do you wish people knew about farming? Or what would you like to know?




What’s the Difference? Sunflowers

Just about two weeks ago, I got married! We had sunflowers for the ceremony, and they were lovely. A few days later, we here at IALF attended the National Agriculture in the Classroom Conference in Kansas City. Though we primarily stayed on the Missouri side, Kansas’s state flower is the sunflower. So I got to thinking about this plant. I knew there are many uses, but are all sunflowers the same? Let’s find out!

Sunflowers are a beautiful addition to a bright bouquet, but that isn’t their only purpose. We also grow sunflowers as an oil crop, and as a “confectionary” crop for human consumption! There are about 70 species of sunflowers, and they all share the genus Helianthus. The common sunflower, Helianthus annuus, has many cultivars that produce slightly different variations of the same species of flower.

The two major agronomic uses for sunflowers are as an oilseed crop and as a confection crop. You can tell the difference between these two types of sunflowers by their seeds. Confection sunflower seeds, like the kind we eat, have white stripes on them. Oilseed sunflower seeds are all black, and are generally smaller.


To further distinguish the sunflowers, oilseed sunflowers can be split in three different categories: linoleic, mid-oleic (also called by the brand name NuSun®), and high oleic. This basically just refers to the chemical makeup of the lipids in the seed. Linoleic sunflower oil is polyunsaturated, mid-oleic sunflower oil has low saturated fat levels, and high oleic sunflower oil is mostly unsaturated and is trans-fat free.


According to one sunflower farmer from California, oilseed sunflower seeds are the preferred type when making bird seed mixes. However, some kinds of confection sunflower seeds can also be used.

Commercial oilseed varieties can be purchased based on oleic content, disease resistance, and higher yield. Most commercial varieties are hybrids, so sunflower seed farmers would buy seeds every year.

Most oil-type sunflower seed is processed in North Dakota and western Kansas. With the remaining seed material, a sunflower seed meal is made and can be used as livestock feed.

In contrast, confection variety sunflowers only take up about 10-20% of the crop each year, according to the Thomas Jefferson Agricultural Institute. These seeds fetch a premium at market, but also can be a trickier crop to cultivate and sell. Farms looking to grow confection sunflower seeds need to be close to a processing facility for the seeds. They also need to be mindful of pests and high winds, which can damage the large seed heads of these varieties more easily than those of oilseed sunflowers. Though these sunflowers may have a higher risk, the higher reward of premium prices may pay off for some producers.

You may know from personal experience that sunflowers sold for human consumption can come either in the hull, or dehulled. What happens to the hulls of those that are marketed without? Well, most of them are used as turkey bedding! The rest are ground into pellets that can serve as a supplemental fiber source in animal feed.

Commercially grown sunflowers for oil or confection use are harvested much later than the sunflowers in the flower shop. The petals have dried up, and the center of the flower is packed with seeds. Farmers use combines with a corn header to harvest them. Though sunflowers are primarily grown in the upper Midwest due to a short growing season, they are also very drought tolerant, so you may see them as far south as Texas! Here’s a great video from a Texas news station that learned more about the crop.


Not counting seed producers (farmers raising sunflowers to be harvested as next year’s seed crop), the last kind of sunflower production is for the ornamental uses we all enjoy. The different varieties can range from large flowers great for bouquets or small flowers better for boutonnieres. Many of these types of sunflowers are also hybrids!


In summary, sunflowers are an interesting, versatile, hardy, useful, beautiful plant and crop. Though we may call them weeds here in Iowa, our neighboring states find them to be an important part of their agricultural industry. Maybe we can learn more from this plant in the future!


Workshop Experience – Gets an A+

It’s the time of year when school lets out for kids and teachers are looking for opportunities for professional development classes. To keep up to date with licensure, teachers need to get continuing education time by attending professional development classes every year. Teachers look for ways to bring new and interesting information into the classroom. Teachers are seeking ways to engage students, peak interests and promote retention of information learned.

Our best motivation is to see the interest ignite as students learn how integral agriculture is to Iowa and to our everyday living. We take very seriously the opportunity to bring agriculture into every classroom across Iowa. Every summer, we and partner organizations promote and hold two-day summer workshops where teachers earn credits for attending. The two-day workshops are packed with learning and help teachers apply Iowa Core standards including science and language arts in the context of agriculture. The workshops also use agriculture to teach other core concepts and skills like social studies and math. The workshops are hands on and interactive with one day of site visits and tours and one day of practical classroom application. Many STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) concepts are integrated throughout.

I attended one of the first workshops held in Moville in cooperation with Siouxland Ag in the Classroom. I was amazed at the amount of information learned on the tours. I cannot3 tell you enough about how interesting they were. Our first stop was at the family farm of Taylor Nelson. Taylor shared information about their farm operation and toured us through the journey of how his family plants, harvests, and sells corn for use in local production of ethanol. We saw many types of machines used in his farm business. We saw the process go full circle. We had ethanol fuellunch at a wonderful gas, food, and fuel stop, that Taylor and his wife own and manage. The station buys ethanol (which started out as corn on his farm), to be mixed with gasoline and supplied as fuel sold to customers on a daily basis. IMG_3262Touring the entire production made the “farm-to-you” come to life right before our eyes. Teachers were very excited to see how they could use this in a classroom by doing a FarmChat® or an actual visit to these sites. Many of the teachers were looking for new ways to ignite a passion for learning and because using agriculture to teach science, social studies, engineering and math is new to them, their excitement for new ideas was visible.

Our second stop was at Siouxland Ethanol. Our tour guides, Pam and Casey, from theddgs plant shared the process of accepting corn via trucks and then through several steps to turn the corn into ethanol for vehicles. The corn delivered has to meet special requirements. The process is amazing to see in action. The sights and sounds of the machines in action and the different smells from the plant were amazing to experience. The actual scent was hard for me to compare to anythingethanol tour else…it had a sweet, yet lingering smell and everyone seemed to like the scent. Seeing the action of milling and mashing to cooking and cooling, I learned so much about turning corn into ethanol from start to finish. It makes me value the ease and ability to just go to a pump and fill up my tank. There is a lot of work behind the gas pump.

Our final tour was at the Purina Plant in Sioux City, Iowa. Purina takes great pride in the way they produce quality feed. They test the product as it goes through the process of 5.jpgbeing made. They use computer programs to be certain everything is done precisely to order and has the correct proportions of ingredients. We were able to see the chemistry 4behind the scenes as well as the care that was taken. To Purina, they believe that what they are doing is not just producing feed – it’s food for very important animals. I was amazed to see all of the different animal foods that are prepared on sight. They had things for guinea pigs all the way up to horses and cattle. They have a solid quality standard in place and seeing the pride that is taken in meeting those standards was truly a testament to the quality of the product.

I still have a lot to learn in regards to agriculture. I am grateful that Agriculture in the Classroom takes very seriously the importance of educating everyone about agriculture and the part it plays in our lives. I am also proud to be part of the IALF team and value the part we play in aligning with AITC across Iowa to make a difference. Teachers, if you haven’t signed up for a workshop you still have time. Check it out on our website.



Agriculture in the Classroom, A History

“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.

Picture2.pngDuring 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.

Picture3.pngEach 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.”

– from National Agriculture in the Classroom

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 ClassroomSiouxland Ag in the Classroom, and Central Iowa Ag in the Classroom.

IALF logo - FINAL.jpgAgriculture 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!