GETTING AGRICULTURE BACK IN THE CLASSROOM
Once upon a time, agriculture was a classroom all by itself. One generation passed its knowledge of sustaining life, the laws of nature and the seasons to the next.
Two hundred years ago, the ways of the earth to replenish itself and Mother Nature's ability to dictate that success or failure was not learned in a classroom, but lived on the land.
Even 100 years ago, the school year in many parts of the country still revolved around summer's harvest and spring's planting.
Fifty years ago, many Oregon students had farm chores before and after school. Youth still earned their summer money by picking berries, weeding onions, moving hand lines or setting siphon tubes.
Today, daily life no longer seems to revolve around agriculture. Perhaps this is because we have lost touch with our roots.
The face of the American farmer is graying. At the last census, the average age of a farmer was 55. Agriculture as a business is risky at best, so the young migrate to the cities in hordes. With each passing decade, there are fewer next generations to teach, train and take over family farms.
These changes have created a disconnect between the food we eat, the fibers we wear or fill our homes with and the land that produces it all.
Nobel Laureate and Medal of Freedom winner Dr. Norman Borlaug has fought starvation in Third World countries for years.
He writes, "How quickly humankind becomes detached from the soil and agricultural production ... only 2 percent in the United States is directly engaged in production agriculture. Thus, it is no longer possible for urban children to spend summer vacations on their grandparents' or uncles' farms. With low-cost food supplies and a largely urban population, is it any wonder that consumers take for granted the world food supply?"
But not only may consumers take their food for granted, they have forgotten its source, naively expecting the grocery store shelves to always be full and that restaurants will always serve dinner. Meanwhile, more and more land is taken out of production as the family farm struggles to survive.
Two summers ago the Oregon Wheat Growers League was cooking for the public at an information booth at the Oregon State Fair. Pulling folks in by their noses via the smell of freshly flipped pancakes, Tammy Dennee, OWGL's executive director, was taking her turn as chef. Dennee was challenged by the gathering crowds to explain the connection between pancakes and wheat growers.
"Why pancakes?" she was repeatedly asked.
"Well, they're made from flour," Dennee answered.
Blank stares, no response.
"Flour comes from wheat," she said, taking it a step farther.
That information was news to many, she says.
As far fetched as that may sound, Dennee and other OWGL volunteers were continually asked to explain why they would cook pancakes as a gimmick for wheat growers.
"These weren't just children or the poor and uneducated. This also came from well-dressed, well-spoken adults," Dennee said.
Somewhere along the food chain of production linking Eggos, flour, soft white wheat hulls, wheat fields and wheat farmers, 21st-century consumers have forgotten that pancakes begin life in the soil.
Dennee is also disturbed by a related trend she has observed more and more Â— a growing intolerance for an industry that was once a source of pride.
"We may not always like agriculture. It's dirty, it stinks, sometimes it's inconvenient Â— especially when there's equipment in our roads and we want to get somewhere," Dennee says. "But the reality is that someone has to get dirty to grow food for us."
Twenty-five years ago, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recognized the growing need to educate future generations becoming removed from the land about agriculture, the environment and natural resources.
They invited agricultural groups and educators to a meeting in Washington, D.C., to discuss agricultural literacy. The end result was the 1981 establishment of Agriculture In The Classroom, a program to provide additional resources for schools.
A major project has been updating a once familiar resource Â— "Get Oregonized" Â— a history book focusing on Oregon's people, natural resources, and agriculture.
Earlier this year, the OWGL purchased approximately 2,500 of the newly revised books to donate one per fourth-grade classroom for each elementary school in every school district, in every wheat growing county throughout Oregon.
Last week, OWGL's Sally Christensen and Oregon's AITC program director Tami Kerr were in Union and Baker counties to deliver the new books.
"We hope teachers and principals will take a look at these over spring break to see what a great additional resource they make for what their students are already studying," Kerr said.
But will their efforts pay off?
Matt Miles, La Grande School District's curriculum coordinator, said the district is cautious about incorporating unsolicited materials into the state curriculum. But he also said many of the teachers he has checked with are familiar with the previous version of "Get Oregonized."
"Principals and teachers have to review new material to see if it fits into the framework of state approved guidelines. If so, the decision to use this as an additional resource would be more up to the individual schools than the district," he explained.
Will Miles also review "Get Oregonized" himself?
"You bet," he promised.