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Educating city kids about where their food comes from

Lessons go both ways in ‘Ag in the Classroom’ program

by By Rob Sharkey |
Graphic of stork flying with a bag of food over a farm

As farmers, we are constantly updating our farming practices and forever challenging ourselves to become better and more efficient stewards of the land. Whether it’s the latest technology, environmentally friendly power, biofuels or tillage practices, to name a few, it’s a constant education.

The general public may not realize that every year, especially in the winter months, we attend seminars, conferences, webinars, and have agronomists visit our farms to keep current on the latest laws and regulations. Farming, like so many jobs, has many variables and moving parts. It takes dedicated planning all year to make harvest successful.

Yet, I think one of the most important jobs we have is to educate the next generation — not just the next generation to run the farm, but maybe more importantly, the next generation of consumers! 

There are so many ways we share our stories of life on the farm, but one of my favorite ways, and perhaps the most effective, has been the “Ag in the Classroom” program through our local county Farm Bureau. 

When our kids were little, we decided, with many others from our county, to adopt a classroom in inner city Chicago. We sent the students monthly letters detailing what we were doing on the farm during all four seasons of the year. This included explaining how we choose the crops we plant, where we buy our seed, what equipment we need to plant and harvest, and a little bit about technology. 

We also showed that it takes a community of people to help a farmer be successful. We have a couple different agronomists visit to advise us on when to plant and when and what to spray to keep the crop healthy. We explained that it takes a company to deliver anhydrous ammonia so we can give our crop nitrogen, and a fuel truck delivering diesel fuel to run our tractors and other equipment. We have several seed salesmen and saleswomen who deliver seed that will grow well according to our soil types.

The best memories we have are the in-person visits. My wife and I would load up the kids and drive to a school in inner city Chicago and meet the students face to face. It was a culture shock, to say the least. 

Growing up in rural Illinois surrounded by cornfields and timber made Chicago’s concrete and skyscrapers a real education for us. The school we visited is in a rough neighborhood where the kids who attended often came from broken and very low-income homes. What we discovered was that the 4th grade classroom welcomed us warmly and the teacher was amazing! The kids were like sponges, soaking up every word we said. They hugged us and sat quietly while we told them about life on the farm. We showed them pictures of our equipment, and they erupted with fantastic questions at the end. It was great for our son to stand in front of the class and tell what life was like growing up on a farm and what chores he had. 

In the end, I think we learned more from those kids than they did from us. It definitely gives you a new perspective when you travel outside your fenceposts. Witnessing firsthand how other people live allows us to know how to better reach them if we truly want to teach them about where their food comes from.

These 4th graders had very good attendance, so we even scheduled a field trip to the Museum of Science and Industry to show them the Farm Exhibit, which had recently opened. This allowed them to see a combine and tractor up close and to learn more about the crops we raise in Illinois. Seeing the look of awe on their faces and the squeals of joy as they climbed up in the tractor was something our family will never forget. 

The strength of the “Ag in the Classroom” program is in the amazing volunteers from so many local grassroots organizations. It was established back in 1981 in conjunction with the IAA Foundation and Farm Bureau, and it has evolved into partnerships with other groups to serve 600,000 students pre-K through 12th grade. This amazing program provides  a supplemental curriculum about agriculture for teachers to incorporate into their already existing plans. 

Rob Sharkey

Rob Sharkey

aka “The Shark Farmer,” tills the land at his fifth-generation farm in the Bradford area, where he lives with wife Emily. He hosts “A Shot of Ag” on WTVP PBS and a podcast heard by millions, among other media endeavors
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