Q. How can kids learn where food comes from?

Q. How can kids learn where food comes from? header image
A. Teach the teachers (in the Summer Ag Institute).
Orissa Burghard and Jason Beck
Overlooking agricultural fields near Cove, Oregon, rancher Jason Beck and science teacher Orissa Burghard examine details of an invasive weed, St. Johns wort, during the week-long OSU Summer Ag Institute. Photo by Lynn Ketchum.

There’s a romance about how farms are portrayed in children’s books. They often include: two cows, two chickens, two pigs, two horses; a red barn; a red rooster; and an apple tree full of red fruit.

This storybook image of a farm might have been on the minds of some teachers as they pulled their rollerbags into the hotel that would serve as their home base for the next week. They were part of the Summer Ag Institute, a graduate-level, continuing education course that teaches teachers about agriculture in Oregon.

Imagine summer camp: sharing a bunkroom, getting up at dawn, and heading out for a day of adventure. Learning by doing, these teachers will spend a week experiencing the diversity of agriculture in Oregon, so they can be more effective in teaching their students where food comes from.

“My kids know that food comes from a farm, not from a store,” said Matthew Cook, a teacher at Franklin School in Corvallis. “But they don’t know what happens on the farm and all it takes to produce the good food that ends up at the store.” Food comes from a farm. That’s the beginning of the story, not the end.

Despite its storybook image, farming is serious business. Oregon agriculture generates $29 billion annually, which is 10 percent of the state’s economy and creates more than a quarter million jobs. Agricultural exports account for 60 percent of shipping that passes through the Port of Portland. Far from the image of corn and soybean agribusiness, Oregon farmers produce more than 230 major crops, from grass-fed beef to Pacific oysters, fresh milk to fine wine. No state has more diversity in its agriculture than Oregon.

Who knew?

teachers at greenhouse
Teacher to teacher, Toby Koehn shares lessons he’s learned as manager of the Cove School farm, a K-12 enterprise that includes a greenhouse, livestock, and a large garden space. Photo by Lynn Ketchum.

Not enough people know about Oregon’s agriculture, according to Greg Thompson, who heads the agricultural education department at Oregon State University. The Summer Ag Institute began in 1989 to help teachers understand agriculture as a subject worth exploring in their classrooms. Since then, more than 500 teachers have completed the weeklong program and earned OSU graduate credits through Thompson’s department.

Teachers have a choice of two sessions of the Summer Ag Institute, one on either side of the Cascades. The eastside experience, based in Union, includes Columbia Basin wheat ranches, timber operations, seed farms, and cattle ranches. The westside experience, based in Corvallis, showcases the Willamette Valley’s cornucopia of fruit, nuts, vegetables, microbreweries, and Christmas trees.

The program gets teachers outdoors in the field, testing, tasting, and learning about agriculture first-hand. As educators, these teachers understand that people generally remember 10 percent of what they read and 90 percent of what they do when they experience something hands-on. So, you can bet, everyone remembers the fistulated cow.

Cove School farm
For their own continuing education, teachers immerse themselves in issues and practices within Oregon’s vast agricultural industries. Photo by Lynn Ketchum.

Exploring with your hands the interior ecosystem of a cow’s chambered stomach is a typical hands-on experience for the Summer Ag Institute. OSU animal sciences research farms maintain a few so-called fistulated cows, each fitted with something like a porthole window that allows researchers to dip their hands directly into the cow’s partly digested breakfast. For scientists, it’s a way to study the chemical and biological fermentation that allows a 600-pound animal to make muscle out of grass.

“It feels like a warm, wet carpet,” said teacher Maggie Smart, elbow-deep in the side of a cow. As the rumen squeezes around her gloved arm, the gas produced from fermentation emits an unforgettable lesson in microbiology from the fistula into her face.

Cattle ranching is Oregon’s second-largest agricultural industry, and one that Tim DelCurto knows well. An OSU beef cattle researcher at Oregon’s agricultural branch station in Union, DelCurto organizes the Union-based Summer Ag Institute. A highlight of the eastside program is the field trip to the Chandler Ranch, a seventh-generation cattle ranch near Baker City.

About 98 percent of Oregon farms are family owned or operated, and more than 1,100 have been continuously operated by the same family for more than a century. The Chandler ranch has been in the family for 150 years. In the shady yard of the Chandler’s home, patriarch Charles regaled the teachers with stories about his great-grandfather’s arrival in Oregon as a wagon train leader in 1862. Charles, a 1941 graduate of Oregon’s Agricultural College (now OSU) recounted the contributions each generation has made to building a successful family business, including the recent transition made by his grandson Dwayne (a 1994 OSU grad) to digitize genetic records that track each breeding line of their world-famous Herefords.

James Cassidy
Deep into soil, OSU instructor James Cassidy invites teachers inside a soil pit near Tangent to experience where agriculture begins. Photo by Tiffany Woods.

“Every farmer I met was a college graduate,” said Portland teacher Brad Kendrick. “It’s a complex industry that requires knowledge in husbandry, genetics, economics, marketing, mechanical engineering, accounting and finance, even regulatory law. I teach my kids to solve problems, and that’s what farmers do.”

Kendrick was impressed with Jane and Terry Puckett, who grow cherries near Cove, and their commitment to farm laborers. The teachers toured housing that the Pucketts had built for workers who come to their farm for just three or four weeks a year. “Our own house would not pass government inspection,” Terry said, “but our farm workers’ housing does, and must.” He said that some of the workers have been coming to their farm each year for decades. “The goal of all these workers is the same,” he told the teachers, “and that’s to educate their kids.”

“What I learned from these farmers is that to be successful in agriculture demands an education,” said Stacie Phillips who teaches in Silver Falls. “My kids’ families work on farms in the valley. I’m not going to let them say, ‘I don’t need to know this because all I’m going to do is work on a farm.’ Now I can tell them that they need to know all this and more if they want to be successful working on a farm.”

Chandler family
Four generations of Chandlers welcome the Summer Ag Institute to their ranch in Baker County, where their family has been ranching since 1862. Photo by Peg Herring.

The teachers nibbled their way through a week of touring orchards, berry fields, dairy processors, and wineries. They sheared sheep, tested soil, and built hydroponics systems for their classrooms. And they each stayed overnight with a farm family, lending a hand with the chores and often talking late into the night about the challenges of teaching and farming.

“I realized how much we (teachers and farmers) have in common,” said Joel Magili of Amity. “Learning is like food, absolutely necessary but sometimes overlooked as an enterprise,” he said. “Teachers and farmers both manage the growth and productivity of society’s most valuable resources. Teachers, like farmers, never have all the resources we need, so we improvise, invent, adapt to produce the best outcome possible. Students are our annual crop that we nurture in a system that we hope is healthy and sustaining.”

In teaching, as in agriculture, the next few years will see a large turnover as the majority of experienced professionals will retire. As new farmers find their way in a complex industry, new teachers will inspire the next generation of learners. Together, they will build a healthy, sustainable, knowledge-based environment in Oregon.

Published in: Food Systems, People