My Family’s Corn Farm and 8 Other Ways to Teach About Corn

When most people think of Iowa, they think of corn.   It’s the number one agriculture commodity in Iowa, and Iowa farmers grow more corn than any other state.  In fact, only three countries (U.S., China, and Brazil) produce more corn than is grown in our little state.

Because corn is big here, it makes sense that Iowans are excited to get their hands on a children’s book all about corn farming!  My Family’s Corn Farm is a non-fiction book by Katie Olthoff.

The story follows Presley, a young Iowa farm girl.  She lives with her family on a corn and swine farm in southeast Iowa. Presley a takes the readers on a tour of the family farm and discusses how corn is grown for livestock feed, human food, industrial uses, and to produce fuel like ethanol.

The story is written at a 3rd grade reading level, but it is great for all elementary classrooms.  Lower elementary teachers are using it as a read aloud book, and it offers supplemental text on more advanced topics science and social studies topics for older students.

More than 1000 copies of the book were requested by teachers during the first month!   Along with those requests, came requests for corn-themed lessons, activities, and books from our lending library to use with My Family’s Corn Farm.

Here’s eight of my favorite lessons and resources for teaching about corn!

  1. Corny Charades. How fun does that sound? Students will hone language arts skills and learn new science vocabulary while playing this corn-y version of charades.
  2. The Diversity of Corn. Many kids think that most of the corn grown in Iowa is sweet corn.  In this lesson, they’ll explore different characteristics and uses of field corn, sweet corn, popcorn, and ornamental corn, and learn a little about traits and heredity too!
  3. Seed Germination Necklaces. This is a fun twist on germinating seeds, a common science experiment in elementary classroom.
  4. Make Corn Plastic! Forget DIY Slime, when you can make corn plastic!  In this science and social studies lesson, students learn about renewable and non-renewable resources and make bioplastics with just corn cornstarch and corn oil.
  5. Seed to Cereal. In this lesson, students sequence photographs while discovering the journey corn takes from seed to cereal, ethanol, and even cheeseburgers!
  6. Collaborative Corn Stock. The name says it all. Students work together to create a paper cornstalk while learning about plant parts and function.  As an added bonus, you’ll have a great work of art to jazz up the classroom walls!
  7. The Life and Times of Corn by Charles Micucci is a great complement to My Family’s Corn Farm. It’s not a great read-aloud book, but it is a great source for student to flip through to learn more about corn growth & development, history, and uses.
  8. Corn Volumes. This math lesson is a fun way to practice math concepts like measuring and estimating volumes — all using corn!

– Cindy

Yogurt Grows on Trees?

Have you ever asked a young child where they think their food comes from? You might be capture-2-e1487971277155.jpgsurprised at the answers. One article said a young 4 year-old didn’t understand what the long orange vegetable was with big green leaves coming out of the top. The father responded that it was a carrot. The youngster thought carrots came in plastic bags.

Many children believe that food comes from the grocery store and if they run out, all they need to do is get more at the store. Many children don’t understand that all of the plants that we eat have to be grown and all of the animal protein has to be raised. Most American families don’t raise their own food, so we rely on farmers to produce crops and livestock.

With modern technology and the internet, students today have many resources at their fingertips, and yet haven’t been given the opportunity to understand some of the most basic things about food, fiber and fuel and where they come from. Very few children have thaccess to fresh fruits and vegetables that have come from a garden. Even fewer children have been able to visit a farm and see the crops growing in the fields or the animals grazing in the pasture. How about the young people in your life? Do they know where food comes from?

Children from other countries are battling this same issue. An article in the Telegraph stated that young adults in the UK don’t know that milk comes from a dairy cow or that eggs come from chickens. The same article also stated that one third of the students surveyed did not know that bacon came from a pig. In Australia, students thought fish fingers came from chicken or pigs and that yogurt grew on trees.

In our rush of the day to day obligations and priorities, have we lost a little understanding of why agriculture literacy is important to our economy? Agriculture is essential to our survival, but what can we do to help educate the next generation? Have you heard the saying “It only takes a spark to get a fire going?” As a mother of three and a grandmother of two, I intend to be certain the young people in my family have the opportunity to understand and experience agriculture up close and personal.

I read books to my grandkids that will help open their minds to where their food comescapture from. I really like “Where Does Our Food Come From”, by Bobbie Kalman. I also love to take them to the local farmer’s market and let them see, taste, and experience fresh fruits and vegetables and the people that grew them. As they reach grade school, I look forward to them experiencing lessons that integrate agriculture into science, social studies, and language arts curricula. Every year we experience the activities at the Iowa State Fair, like the Little Kids on the Farm and all of the educational things happening at the Animal Learning Center.

I encourage you to look for opportunities to share agriculture with your family and friends. Our need is real and there are limitless resources. Your local Agriculture in the Classroom coordinator has information, literature, books, lessons and may even be able to connect you with a local farmer who would be thrilled to share his experiences and expertise with you. Many Iowa communities have agriculture festivals and agriculture days’ year round. Every August the Iowa State Fair celebrates 11 days of awesome agriculture festivities. Let’s all be a spark for agriculture in our communities.


Learning at any age

“Wow, I didn’t know that!”

Was this from a first grader?  No! It was from a teacher after attending an Agriculture in the Classroom presentation.  As I visit classrooms I know my main audience is the student, but the adults in the room are also gaining knowledge.

20160929_142437.jpgI first realized this several years ago during Ag Day, an event in the spring for all the 3rd graders in Mahaska County.  The students rotate from station to station along with their teachers and their parent chaperones.  There are stations on beef, pork, sheep, poultry, corn, soybeans, vet medicine, and farm safety just to name a few.  They stay at each station for about 10 minutes before moving on. Every year I have at least one or two of the chaperones who tell me how much they have learned!  This day has become a highlight for the 3rd graders each year and the teachers tell me it’s the best field trip they take.  We bus them to the location, feed them lunch, and send them home with great memories along with a goodie bag of agriculture related materials.  A few weeks after Ag Day I visit the classrooms and follow up with them on what they loved about Ag Day and what they learned.  It’s amazing to hear all the different aspects that the students remember.  The teachers usually chime in on something they learned also.

20161116_124028a.jpgWe have a dairy farm outside of Oskaloosa that has welcomed many school groups to see their operation.  Each spring a group of preschoolers comes out to see the milking process, feed young calves, and then make ice-cream-in-a-bag in the yard.  Again, they bring lots of extra adults to keep track of these 3 and 4-year-old kids.  The kids love feeding the calves, but it’s the adults that are asking all the questions.  By hearing their questions, it reminds us of why we are doing Ag in the Classroom.  Most of their questions are very basic and not too technical.  They want to know the personal side of the farming business and how that milk in the tank gets to their kitchens.

I have attended several National Agriculture in the Classroom conferences. At these conferences there are so many opportunities to learn about another part of our country and the agriculture in that area.  I have toured fish farms, organic vegetable farms, small farms with grazing sheep in the fields and very large dairy farms.  The conference has excellent break out sessions and guest speakers. Most of the attendees are already teaching agriculture in their classrooms as this conference is geared towards educators but coordinators like myself also come away with a better appreciation for agriculture and how it can incorporated into our classrooms.  If anyone is thinking of going to the national conference, it is well worth the trip!

This past summer we teamed up with two other counties and hosted a teacher workshop along with the Iowa Agriculture Literacy Foundation. This two day workshop took a lot of planning but was well attended by teachers from our surrounding counties.  We toured the same dairy farm that the preschoolers had been to. We went to a beef farm and a farm with row crops.  We toured Frisian Farms with their gouda cheese and Tassel Ridge Winery.  The following day we were in Eddyville at the Iowa Bioprocessing Training Center and heard from many of the businesses in that area along with a tour of Cargill. The Iowa Learning Farms did a presentation on water quality and we were able to show the teachers how to use FarmChat® in their classrooms.  During lunch on the first day one of the teachers raised her hand and said, “So I get it, EVERYTHING we are teaching can be related to agriculture!”  Now that is success!!!!

Even though Agriculture in the Classroom in known for work students, we are educating the adults too!

-Karen Adams is the Ag in the Classroom lead for Mahaska and Marion Counties

Put the Ag in TAG!

Talented and Gifted (TAG) students have a wide variety of strengths and interests, and Talented and Gifted programs have a lot of freedom in how to learn or what to learn about.

Some students are excelled in reading and need more challenging texts. Others find math simple and would benefit from different problems. Many TAG students could benefit from problem solving projects and research projects.

What’s unique about agriculture is that it can fit all of these needs. There are agriculture books written for pre-K levels all the way up to and past collegiate level texts. Agriculture business and economics provide real-world examples of math and can help motivate students when given those examples. And what better industry to study when looking to solve problems? Topics like conservation, genetic engineering, world hunger, and so many others can be great topics for research, debate, and presentations.

Here at IALF, we house lots of resources available for Iowa teachers to check out or use free of charge. Our Lending Library is stocked with books, games, kits, and DVDs of varying grade levels and topics. This can be a great place to start if students are looking for reference material for a research project. Many of our books are specific to a crop or livestock specie, but there are many other gems. For instance, the film Temple Grandin, outlines the life of one of the most brilliant animal scientists in history. The Man Who Fed the World, talks about Norman Borlaug and his great strides in plant pathology that saved over one billion lives!

TAG students, like all other students, also like to play games! Our Lending Library also houses games like Ag Cranium, which puts a fun agriculture spin on Cranium, and Plant Match, which teaches students about the developmental stages of plants, while playing a fun matching game!

On our website, we also have a database of lesson plans that are ready to download and put directly into use. There, you can find things like GMO Decisions, which is a lesson that discusses the differences in types of genetic engineering and allows for debate and deeper understanding of a complex and modern issue. Our Watershed Decisions and Whey Waste lesson plans also allow for discussion, debate, and creativity to solve real problems that people today face.

The National Association for Gifted Children has a set of six standards that can be used to align to TAG efforts. Within these standards, you find phrases like culturally relevant curriculum, cultural competence, communication competence, collaboration, career pathways, and ethics. The world of agriculture is never short of career possibilities, or the need to solve culturally relevant issues together, while discussing ethical implications.

TAG provides a unique opportunity for students to go above and beyond in any subject the student is excelling in. Agriculture provides countless outlets for these students to learn, interact, discuss, and discover a wide variety of important and relevant topics.

For a full list of IALF’s resources, please visit our website at If you are looking for a specific resource (like books on Henry A. Wallace, the byproducts of pigs, or how combines work), send us an email or call us at or 515-331-4181. We know there is something here that you can use!



Agriculture Literacy in the Digital World

1There are many online resources to ‘grow’ educators’ ability and to integrate agriculture literacy into the content areas. More and more learning is moving to web based platforms which allows for individualized and personalized learning.

In a data reported by the National Agricultural Statistics Service (2013), 211,373 people in Iowa were classified as farm operators or paid farm workers. This number does not reflect individuals working in agriculture related industries, such as seed and fertilizer sales, and implement production/sales. To support Iowa’s need for a strong workforce in the area of agriculture, IALF and AEA PD Online have partnered to bring online courses and digital content around agriculture to teachers across the state of Iowa.

AEA PD Online and IALF have created fully online and blended courses that focus on how to integrate agricultural literacy into the content areas of literacy, math science, and social studies. Both fully online and blended course participants will have the opportunity to learn about online student modules focused on the role of agriculture in the creation of alternative energy. Individuals who choose the blended courses during the summer will also have the opportunity to do hands-on, site based learning. To find upcoming course offerings check the AEA PD Online Course Catalog.

2One of the biggest benefits that online or blended course participants will experiences is the opportunity to learn about the Student Personalized Learning System and the agriculture and energy content found in the system (student modules were built with financial support from the Iowa Energy Center and IALF). Content module topics include:

  • Energy Conservation Practices
  • Agriculture and Biofuels Industry
  • Chemical Reactions in Ethanol Production
  • Biomass Technology and Energy Production
  • Agriculture and Solar Energy
  • Ethanol and the Environment
  • Impact on the Corn Supply
  • And much more

Teachers, administrators and counselors at school districts can assign any or all of the modules to their students and track student progress as they work through the modules.

If interested in viewing the content on the Student Personalized Learning System (SPLS) educators can log into it using the username and password that they use for the statewide teacher training system where they have taken mandatory trainings. Once logged into the Student Learning System, click on Modules, and select Agriculture (or Science). Content for grades K-2, 3-5 and 6-8 will appear.

Agriculture plays an important role in the live of many Iowans. To support ongoing success and economic growth in this industry AEA PD Online and IALF are proud to have partnered to support teachers learning how to integrate Ag literacy into their curriculum and provide students with access to high quality content focused on agriculture.

In addition to the Ag energy content, the SPLS offers teachers the ability to supplement classes or provide remediation to struggling students in the areas of:

  • 3Counseling
  • English/Language Arts
  • Employability
  • Financial Literacy
  • Family and Consumer Science
  • Math
  • Science
  • Social Studies
  • Technology Literacy
  • And more

It also allows teachers to take their own content and create online learning modules.

Click here to watch an overview of the Student Personalized Learning System or for more information contact instructional designers Denise Krefting ( or Melissa Wicklund ( at AEA PD Online.

-Rob Brookhart, Instructional Designer, AEA PD Online

Reflections on agriculture education

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

-Brenda Mormann, North Central Iowa Ag in the Classroom

Why Teach about Agriculture?

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

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

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

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

soybeans drawing.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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