Archive for September, 2014

I had a sudden epiphany recently. Much of what I do in ag literacy is to UN-teach what we teach children—practically from birth—about what farms are like.

I’ve been reading to my 19 month-old daughter at bedtime for as long as she could sit still and focus her eyes on the page. Almost one-quarter of her dozens of books have something to do with farming. She seems to enjoy them, and I’m perfecting my vocal interpretations of BAAA, MOO, NEIGH, and COCK-A-DOODLE-DOO!

Barnyard Dance (Sandra Boynton), Big Red Barn (Margaret Wise Brown), and Five Cheepy, Chirpy Chicks (Debbie Tarbett) are current bedtime favorites at my house.

Big Red Barn contains a lovely two-page spread where cows, sheep, goats, puppies, kittens, and horses play in grass that stretches to the horizon. There are piles of hay to eat or lie down in, a muddy area for the pigs, and the big red barn rests comfortably in the distance, flanked by two leafy trees. The text on this page spread reads, “And they all lived together/In the big red barn. And they played all day/In the grass and in the hay.”

In Barnyard Dance, we read, “Bow to the horse. Bow to the Cow. Twirl with the pig if you know how.” The cow wears sunglasses and plays the fiddle, and all the four-legged animals stand on their hind feet.

The Five Cheepy, Chirpy Chicks become four, three, two, one, and then five again as each stops to visit with another friendly farm animal before rejoining the hen and rooster at bedtime. Once again, this book portrays a wide variety of farm animals romping on a summer day.

These titles are a good representation of the farm books available for babies and toddlers. In them, the grass is always green. The sun always shines by day and the moon gently graces the farmscape at night. The farm animals are sweet, and many of them talk. Pigs always have mud in which to wallow. Farmers always wear overalls.

I’m not suggesting there’s anything inherently wrong with these books. But for how many children does their farming education come to a squealing halt in the always-green pastures of Old MacDonald’s farm once they grow out of board books?

A sampling of my toddler's adorable farm books. Is this where farm education for many children (and adults) ends?

A sampling of my toddler’s adorable farm books. Is this where farm education for many children (and adults) ends?

I believe our problem with agricultural understanding isn’t just that we’re generations removed from the farm. It’s also that beginning in early childhood we inadvertently teach children that all farms should feature talking animals, red barns, milk cans, sunshine, green pastures, and (male) farmers wearing straw hats… and we never correct that notion. How much of the discomfort expressed by those upset with modern farming is a result of cognitive dissonance between the first farm depictions they saw in books as toddlers and images of actual farms today?

Just because many farms today don’t reflect the romanticized, pastoral images and feelings of children’s books doesn’t mean farmers lack the same values of hard work, sacrifice, and deep caring for the land and animals they’ve always had. Their farms are still beautiful, they just look different. I’m not advocating that anyone stop reading cute farm books to their kids, and I’m not going to stop reading Big Red Barn to my little girl.

But her education about farming shouldn’t end there.

This post appeared as the “Stray Kernels” column in the September-October 2014 issue of DeKalb County Farm Bureau’s Connections magazine.

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