By Paul W. Jackson
When alien-looking cornfields rolled by Julia Recko on a childhood family vacation, she started an educational journey without knowing it. Her answer key was still many years in the future.
“All I saw was sweet corn,” said the Washington, D.C.-raised Director of Education Outreach with the American Farm Bureau Federation’s (AFBF) Foundation for Agriculture. “I wondered ‘who could eat this much corn?’” she said. “I didn’t know that it wasn’t sweet corn, or that it served a different purpose, or many different purposes.”
Labeling her as an agriculturally illiterate child, she admits, would be accurate. It’s one of the reasons she’s so interested these days in getting “ag accurate” books into schools.
“I don’t think anything I learned about farming as a child was negative,” she said. “There just wasn’t anything. Maybe we learned that apples grow on trees, but it was all super general. Maybe we learned that milk comes from cows, but we didn’t learn about how or why it’s pasteurized.”
Perhaps, said Tonia Ritter, manager of Michigan Farm Bureau’s Promotion and Education program, it’s not crucial that children know how pasteurization happens. But it may be crucial that they know why.
“The agriculture community has been accused of battling misinformation with boring science and a kind of blind allegiance to that,” she said. “But it helps if a child knows why milk is pasteurized and why farmers keep chickens protected from predators. It’s good information for anyone who eats, but it’s also a good way to pique a child’s interest in science, and perhaps lead them to a career in agriculture, which by now everyone should know offers thousands of jobs in which they don’t have to pitch manure or wrestle with a pig.”
Piquing that interest begins at an early age, but it can’t start with outdated information, Ritter said.
“Right now we’re in a nostalgia struggle,” she said. “The image of great-grandpa’s farm is what’s taken as accurate information. Maybe it was accurate 60 years ago. But modern farmers don’t milk cows by hand on a three-legged stool. So when we look at books to get in front of elementary school students, we want them to contain accurate information about modern farms before the anti-farm propaganda puts up a barrier in their minds.”
Replacing such barriers with accurate visions of modern agriculture is the task people such as Recko tackle today, but they have plenty of help. Without local efforts, education about agriculture might slip further behind the times.
“I suppose some kids come into third or fourth grade with some notions about ag, but we don’t really know where they come from,” said Stacey Lauwers, vice-chair of MFB’s state-level Promotion and Education (P&E) Committee and chair of the St. Clair County Farm Bureau P&E Committee.
“Sometimes the kids don’t yet know what they don’t know. So we want to be able to offer them books we know have good information and the right message,” she said. “We know as farmers that our animals are well-cared for and loved. But some books for kids have things that are not the right message.
“We don’t want books that sugar-coat things such as farmers raising animals for meat, but there’s no need for them to be gruesome or graphic. There are emotions that go into it, but there’s a good message to be told, and with ag-accurate books, we know there’s a good message because they’re reviewed by people in the industry.”
Reviewers don’t have blinders on, however. A book doesn’t become recommended for classrooms just because of its agricultural accuracy.
“There is a five-part scoresheet,” said Deb Schmucker, manager of MFB’s Field Operations Division, who reviewed books during her role on the AFBF Foundation board. “First is its portrayal of agriculture and producers as current. Second is if it contains accurate information. Third, it has to be interesting and engage students. Fourth is if it has the potential to have curriculum developed around it, and fifth is if it should be recommended to educators.”
When books meet those criteria and are selected by the AFBF Foundation, the real work of getting ag accurate books to classrooms begins.
“Ag integration into the classroom is key,” Schmucker said. “We believe agriculture is a key part of any education, so the books have to be interesting enough to engage any child.”
Such efforts are crucial at the county level, as Lauwers knows well. St. Clair County farmers donate books to 4th-grade teachers who attend the county Farm Bureau’s Project RED (Rural Education Days), and gives one each to the county’s 11 libraries.
“All the books we give also come with a teacher’s guide,” Lauwers said. “This year we gave out 25 books. We ask our members to co-sponsor a book along with MFB, and there’s a tag inside the cover saying who donated it. So when the teachers and kids look at it, they know that farmers support education.”
Perhaps even more importantly, Recko said, is that those same farmers read books to kids.
“That’s a great way to get farmers into the classroom,” she said. “They can come in and say ‘you read a book about a (soybean) farmer? That’s what I do.’ Meeting a real farmer will have more impact than reading the book.”
In the future, ag accurate books will get published more often, it is hoped, after AFBF Foundation launched its own publishing company called Feeding Minds Press.
And if ag accurate books is where it all begins for youngsters, then perhaps children such as Julia Recko can get a better, more accurate start in life, armed with knowledge that gives them a step up.
“Ag accurate books are a starting point,” she said, noting that her real education about farming started at age 23, when she took a job with AFBF. “We can’t just do nothing. It would be very sad to not offer children the opportunity to learn about what farmers do.”
For more information, visit http://www.agfoundation.org/, https://www.michfb.com/mi/MiFoundation4Ag/ or miagclassroom.org.