Agriculture in the Classroom

The Agriculture in the Classroom (AITC) program works to raise awareness, knowledge, and appreciation of farms and farming in Virginia through classroom education. Since the program stared, AITC has reached more than 300,000 students and 13,000 teachers. Here, Lynn Stadelmeie (AITC Education Coordinator) answers questions about teaching agricultural literacy.

The heart of AITC is agricultural literacy. What knowledge and skills comprise agricultural literacy? As students learn about land, farming, and agriculture how does agricultural literacy evolve?
We define agricultural literacy as understanding where your food and fiber come from, as well as the many people and processes involved in getting the food from producer to consumers. AITC serves a PK-8 audience, so for us, the earliest indicators of agricultural literacy involve simply identifying the crops, animals, machines, and people found on a farm. As we move up through the grade levels we begin to talk about plant and animal life cycles, natural resources, and economics. Our goal is to have people understand the broad range of agriculture and its effect on all aspects of daily life.

Students make a map of Virginia agricultural products.
Students make a map of Virginia agricultural products.

Do you see any evidence of the Farm to Table movement when you visit classrooms? Are more teachers talking about farmer’s markets, CSAs, or growing family gardens?
In general, at teacher workshops we do find more and more awareness of these types of things and believe that it is a positive development for people to become more conscious of their food.

AITC garden zine project
AITC garden zine project

My father-in-law grew up on a farm in Cumberland County, Virginia where the family still runs a small cattle farm. In his childhood, the community revolved around farms and farmers and food production. I’m guessing that even today the farm experience of students in Cumberland county is pretty different from students in Henrico county, less than an hour away. Do you have different learning objectives for different parts of Virginia?
Our objectives and mission are the same across the state. We find that regardless of geographical location people are still increasingly removed from production agriculture. Even in our state’s more rural areas, there is still a generational disconnect with farming. Agriculture in the Classroom accomplishes its mission by working with PK-8 teachers across the state. We do this primarily through professional development workshops where teachers are given hands-on, SOL-aligned lessons using agriculture as the medium to teach various skills. We find that as more and more teachers are multiple generations removed from the farm that it is important to reach both the teacher and the student.

AITC teacher workshop
AITC teacher workshop

The Virginia Horse Industry Board states that over 170,000 horses reside here and that horses influence the lives of millions of Virginians, through hay production, breeding, transporting, or participating in one of about seven hundred equine events each year. I imagine that for some students you reach, horseback riding may be a first introduction to agriculture. How do horses fit into the work that you all do at AITC?
Horses tend to be very popular among children and often serve as a good gateway into introducing other aspects of agriculture. Horses are a great way to lead into a discussion of animal care. We can talk about what the owner needs to provide the horse and then lead that into a discussion of how farmers take care of production farm animals, such as chickens, cattle, or hogs. We want students to know farmers provide their livestock with shelter, food, fresh water, and veterinary care. Horses are also a good way to introduce children to agricultural careers that they may not have yet considered, such as large animal veterinarians.

Ultimately, how do agriculturally literate children contribute to a strong and healthy Virginia?
Agriculture is both the state and the nation’s largest industry. In Virginia alone, it contributes $55 billion annually and provides more than 357,000 jobs. If children learn at an early age the benefits of farmers to the Commonwealth’s economy, environment, and landscape, they will be better able to make informed decisions about the future of Virginia agriculture and recognize that a healthy agriculture industry means an economically strong and green Virginia.

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