Archive for the ‘agricultural literacy’ Category

These words have been running through my head for a few days, for a variety of unrelated reasons. One is that I’ve been practicing a version of a song by that title with our church choir. Another is that the early signs of spring remind me that the warmer, greener days of our annual circle around the sun are quickly approaching.

Yet another reason I’ve been pondering these words is that I recently attended the visitation of a friend’s mother. If you know the hymn’s lyrics (can you hear it in your mind in Johnny Cash’s voice?), you might remember that it’s about sorrow at a mother’s death.

But the main reason these words have relevance to me lately seems unrelated to death and loss. In this case, it’s about the circle of people who help us each year with our Ag in the Classroom program. As I was conducting the volunteer training back in January, it dawned on me that today we have volunteers who experienced the Ag in the Classroom presentations when they were in elementary school. Now they’re back as young adults, sharing with elementary students the experiences they themselves had in school.


Travis Hughes remembers Ag in the Classroom volunteers visiting his elementary school classroom when he was younger. This year he paid it forward by volunteering himself.

Travis Hughes is one of those. It’s probably no surprise that making ice cream in second grade is the Ag in the Classroom experience he remembers best. He remembers how excited he was to receive his certificate of participation, and how the volunteer presenter made him and his classmates feel special and appreciated. This year, Travis was paying it forward as he delivered fourth grade “Mapping Illinois Agriculture” presentations in three classrooms. After his presentations, he shared with me how much he enjoyed it, and how he “gets” the kids who were a little unruly during his lessons, because he knows there were times he was like that, too.

To me, what’s striking about “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” is that the lyrics are sad, but the song isn’t. The song, when sung, is hopeful. The answer is yes, the circle will stay intact. Spring will come back after the dark days of winter. Mothers and fathers will grow old and pass on but their children will grow up and have children of their own. Elementary school kids will experience Ag in the Classroom lessons and some will become Ag in the Classroom volunteers themselves.

When I asked if he could remember who visited his second grade classroom to give the Ag in the Classroom presentation, Travis said he couldn’t. Considering he was only 7 or 8 at the time, I cut him some slack. But I was curious, so I looked it up in my files. Travis was in second grade in 2003, and he says his teacher at Davenport Elementary was Mrs. Sue Finney. That year, Genoa-area farmer Don Bray conducted the “From Cow to Ice Cream” lesson in Mrs. Finney’s room.

2010 placemat pic crop

Genoa-area farmer Don Bray (center) was an Ag in the Classroom volunteer and Ag Literacy Committee member for many years.

Don presented dozens of “From Cow to Ice Cream” lessons over many years, all the way up to February of 2011. In the summer of that same year, Don died. Today, Travis Hughes still remembers that he learned about dairy farming and made ice cream in second grade. He still recalls how special that Ag in the Classroom volunteer—Don Bray—made him feel.

Thanks to people like Don, Travis, and well over 100 individuals who volunteer for Ag in the Classroom in our county each year, the circle is indeed unbroken.

This post also appeared as the “Stray Kernels” column in the March 2017 issue of DeKalb County Farm Bureau’s Connections magazine.

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img_2567“Volunteering is the ultimate exercise in democracy. You vote in elections once a year, but when you volunteer, you vote every day about the kind of community you want to live in.” ~ Unknown 

This wisdom has been running through my mind a lot lately. And not just because of our currently heated national conversation on what kind of a country we want to live in. It’s also because of something that’s been taking place right here at DeKalb County Farm Bureau, something that takes place every year at this time.

That “something” is our Ag in the Classroom program for first through fourth grades. As I write this, I’m in the midst of an ongoing give-and-take with dozens of volunteers—people who are “voting” right now about the kind of community in which they want to live. By volunteering to deliver Ag in the Classroom presentations, I believe they are voting for DeKalb County to be the kind of community where:

  • Students and teachers understand why farming matters.
  • Farmers and others who work in agriculture are valued for their contribution to society.
  • Consumers can go to the grocery store and feel a personal connection to someone who produces the food they buy.
  • The agricultural community cares about the education and well-being of all our children.

img_2336It’s not just the classroom volunteers who are voting to shape our community. It’s the retired Ag Literacy Committee members who call me to say, “What can I do?”—and then spend an entire afternoon in my office labeling teacher thank-you gifts and gift bags. It’s the Ag Literacy Committee spending an evening counting, bundling, stuffing, and labeling—all while discussing other ways to increase agricultural understanding in our county and beyond. And it’s also the teachers who reserve precious classroom time to focus on agriculture.

I never feel as though I adequately thank these individuals for the time and energy they devote to Ag in the Classroom. I try, though. I love it when I can catch volunteers returning supplies after their presentations. That’s when I can say “thank you” in person, and hear stories about their classroom visits.

I often hear that both students AND teachers learn surprising new facts from the lessons. “The kids thought the ear of popcorn was Indian corn,” volunteers will say, or “The teacher said she hadn’t realized that hand sanitizer is made with ethanol from corn.”

By the end of this month, over 100 people in our county will exercise democracy by volunteering for Ag in the Classroom. I know they’re busy, but they step forward and take the time to do so anyway. For that, I am grateful.

“Volunteers do not necessarily have the time; they just have the heart.”  ~ Elizabeth Andrew

This post also appeared as the “Stray Kernels” column in the February 2017 issue of DeKalb County Farm Bureau’s Connections magazine.

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She’s only 3½ years old. But my daughter is at the “why” stage and actively soaking up any and all information we have the patience to share with her. This, coupled with my job in ag literacy, prompted me to think about what I want her to know about agriculture at this age.

So here goes. Here are six things I want my child to learn about food and farming while she’s still young, and how I will explain each (if I haven’t already).

  1. Food doesn’t come from the grocery store. It comes from farms. I’ve explained to Naya that before food gets to the grocery store, farmers grow or raise it on farms. Then some things–like bread, applesauce, and bacon–go to processing plants to be made into the foods we eat. They are then shipped to the grocery store where we buy them to take home and eat.
  2. Farms are places where plants are grown or animals are raised for all of us to eat. It doesn’t make sense to say food comes from farms and not explain what a farm is. We also point out farms as we travel and talk about what might be grown or raised at each one.
  3. Farmers are the people who raise our food. I want my child to know that farmers are essential to our lives. Why? Because without them we would all have to grow our own food. Most of us don’t have the time, knowledge, or space to produce everything we eat.
  4. The fields around us aren’t just scenery; they are our food. I often call my daughter’s attention to the beauty around us. Our rural landscape of corn and soybeans is peaceful, open, and pretty. It’s also where some of our food comes from. I will explain to her that the plants growing in farmers’ fields are called crops.


    My daughter, exploring a cornfield at the age of two. I want her to know that the field around us provide some of our food.

  5. Animals that farmers raise for food are called livestock. They are not pets. I want Naya to understand that pets and livestock serve different purposes. Pets like our two dogs are meant to be our companions, and livestock provide us with food. However, just because farm animals aren’t pets doesn’t mean humans don’t have a responsibility to keep them safe, healthy, and comfortable. Farmers provide their animals with special food, special places to live, and even special doctors–called veterinarians–just like we do for our pets. When the right moments arise, we will help her understand that everything living, people included, relies on other living things to survive. (One such moment recently presented itself when she caught a fish which hours later appeared as a fried filet on a plate. “Daddy,” she questioned, “where’d his head go?”)
  6. Chocolate milk doesn’t come from brown cows. I don’t know why adults persist in saying this. Some must think it’s funny, and a few apparently think it’s true. Either way, if you tell a little kid that chocolate milk comes from brown cows and don’t quickly explain that you’re just being silly, they will believe you. Unless they live on a dairy farm or someone has already told them otherwise, they don’t know any better. I want my daughter to know better. She doesn’t yet seem interested in chocolate milk, but when she is, we will explain that all cows give white milk, and humans add the chocolate later on.

As Naya continues to grow and ask “Why?” the information we can share with her will obviously become more complex and in-depth. But this seems like a good place to start.

What do YOU think a preschooler should know about agriculture?

This post also appeared as the “Stray Kernels” column in the Sept.-Oct. 2016 issue of DeKalb County Farm Bureau’s Connections magazine.

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If you want to push one of my hot buttons, just make a spiteful comment about how teachers have it easy because they only work for nine months and get summers off. It will get me going every single time.

Although I’m trained as an educator, my last experience with formal classroom teaching was 24 years ago, when I spent a semester student teaching a multiage first and second grade classroom in central Illinois. Those few months left me with empathy for teachers that will never, ever, leave me.

Here’s what I learned about the life of an elementary teacher.

First, I discovered that teaching is physically tiring. During the school day, the constant instructing, standing, and moving combined with the bombardment of need from 20-some little people is draining. And it doesn’t stop when they leave the classroom. I’ll never forget the late nights reviewing that day’s student work and trying to create engaging, hands-on lessons for the next day. It felt like I never got enough sleep before it was time to gather all my supplies and head back to the classroom.

I found that teaching is also mentally and emotionally exhausting. Every lesson, every interaction with a student is fraught with possibilities and pitfalls. I remember a highly-involved lesson that went so well I felt giddy afterwards. I also vividly recall too-harshly reprimanding a child and watching his face crumple into tears. Whether positive or negative, teachers will tell you that experiences like these are emotionally demanding.

Like the physical toll, I learned the emotional toll doesn’t end when the kids leave. One evening, I enlisted the help of a friend to decipher a sentence scrawled by a first-grade boy. After several minutes of scrutiny, we interpreted these words: “It scares me when my mom and dad yell at each other.” My heart ached for this child, whom I had previously only viewed as a classroom mischief-maker. Ask any teacher and they will tell you similar stories of students whose circumstances kept them awake at night with worry.

As demanding as it was, my student teaching experience still didn’t include many additional stressors that today’s classroom teacher contends with. I didn’t have to administer standardized tests, for example, nor was I required to interact with school administrators or parents.

So. Those summers off after the school year ends? After all the long days, late nights, and weekends of preparation, grading, and worrying, I believe teachers urgently need and richly deserve time to relax and recharge before the next school year begins.


Teachers on their summer “break,” participating in our 18th annual Summer Ag Institute, a 40-hour NIU graduate course.

As soon as school was out this spring, however, 13 local teachers spent several long days of their “break” time attending our Summer Ag Institute (SAI), exploring ways to inject food, farming, and career information into their classroom teaching. They joined many colleagues who ended their school year only to begin courses or attend conferences to further their professional development.

A week later while I was attending the National Ag in the Classroom conference, the previous week’s SAI participants still weren’t resting. They were working on their course assignments. Every day I received a barrage of emails with lesson plans, journals, and papers attached. In the meantime, most of my fellow conference attendees were—you guessed it—teachers on summer break. What is this “summer break” people speak of? When do these teachers rest?

From what I can tell, the answer is: Teachers do rest and recharge in the summer… but not for the three months non-educators may imagine. Many teachers spend early summer taking professional development classes and workshops, mid-summer squeezing in a family vacation, and the final weeks of break preparing for the new school year. Some also teach summer school or work part-time jobs.

Even addressing health challenges often waits until the school year ends.  A fourth grade teacher friend of mine had knee replacement surgery within days after school let out. She’ll be having the other knee replaced yet this summer, allowing enough healing time so that she can be on her feet to teach again in August. Summer “break?” Yikes.

As is true for most working adults, I don’t get a summer break. But I still don’t begrudge teachers theirs.

And to the 220 area teachers over the past 18 years who have spent the first part of their summer break with me, participating in the Summer Ag Institute, thank you. Thank you for devoting so many hours of your “break” time to continue learning so that you may enhance your teaching.


This post also appeared as the “Stray Kernels” column in the July 2016 issue of DeKalb County Farm Bureau’s Connections magazine.

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It’s not easy, actually.

Asking others for help has never been my strong point. I’m a fiercely independent introvert, and I tend to want to figure things out on my own while talking to as few people as possible.

It’s not that I don’t like people, or don’t like talking. If you halfway know me and ever happen to drift by my office, I might talk your ear off.  I’ll probably say ten awkward things before I finally remember that you have other things to do. Then you’ll leave, and I will take a deep breath and let my scattered thoughts settle for a few moments before I continue working. I’ll be delighted to have talked to you, but I’ll still have to regroup afterwards.

I like people, and I like talking, but it wears me out. Susan Cain, author of the (terrific) book “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking” explains that extroverts are energized by stimulation and social interaction, while introverts are energized by quiet reflection. I am at my most productive and creative in a quiet space.

But it’s January, and it won’t be quiet long. January in my world means gearing up for our Ag in the Classroom program. Gearing up for Ag in the Classroom means fielding requests for presentations from 140-150 teachers. It means obtaining, organizing, and preparing supplies (like corn and soybean seeds for first graders to plant and rock salt so second graders can make ice cream).  Most of all, January means I will be busy asking at least 100 people for help.


Preparing Ag in the Classroom supplies means asking the Ag Literacy Committee for help!

That’s how many people it takes to visit all those first through fourth grade classrooms to teach kids in our county about agriculture. And you know what? It’s AWESOME. I love it. I love the energy, enthusiasm, and generosity of our volunteers. I love hearing from teachers and sometimes even parents what a profound impact those volunteers have on their students.

But it’s not easy. Introversion aside, I am acutely aware of the fact that each prospective volunteer, upon receiving an e-mail or a call from me, may think something like, “Oh, shoot. She found me.” As you read or listen to my plea for help, all the things that are on the plate you call life will flash before your eyes: Getting your farm tax documents in order. Attending your kid’s dance rehearsals. Delivering seed. Your mother-in-law’s illness. Your other kid’s sporting events. Your job. Your… whatever. I get it—you’re busy.

And here I am, asking you to volunteer. To walk into classrooms and talk to kids about agriculture. You know it will take more time than just the hour or so spent in each classroom. First, there’s the training (if you haven’t presented in the past). Then, reviewing the lesson plan, preparing the materials, and contacting the teachers. And then returning your supplies to my office afterwards. I’m asking you to devote a lot of precious time, in a life that’s already full. I know this.

2012 ag pres2

I know that volunteering for Ag in the Classroom means trading productive time in your farm shop or bank office for time spent in a few rambunctious classrooms.

Plus, the thing about volunteering is that you don’t have to do it. You don’t have to add another thing to your list of things to do. I know this, too.

This knowledge is ever-present as I carefully phrase each e-mail or mentally rehearse each call before I pick up the phone. So if you get that e-mail or call from me, please know that it wasn’t an easy thing for me to do.

But I also know that what you will do if you say yes is harder yet… and even more important.

P.S. If you have a passion for agriculture and would like to volunteer, you don’t have to wait for me to contact you. E-mail me anytime at rcollins@dekalbfarmbureau.org or call 815-756-6361. I would love to talk to you!



This post also appeared as the “Stray Kernels” column in the January 2016 issue of DeKalb County Farm Bureau’s Connections magazine.

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The following is a guest post written by 2014 summer Ag Literacy Intern Kelsey Faivre. Kelsey is a farm girl from DeKalb and sophomore at Iowa State University studying Agricultural Communications. 

Kelsey_woman_Tues_croppedAt the beginning of my internship, I thought that I was prepared to talk to people about agriculture. I grew up on a conventional grain farm, raise cattle, and am attending Iowa State University studying Agricultural Communications.

Having completed my internship, I’m not sure if anyone can be prepared enough to talk to the non-farm public about modern agriculture. Just one face-to-face conversation with a stranger had me questioning my career goals. It amazed me how fast being doubted made my chest ice over. I found myself wondering why anyone would subject themselves to this.

It was an event for families, and I was standing next to our Ag Literacy display. The woman approached me with her hands on her hips. Her little girl ran off to play.

“So, what group are you and what do you support?” she asked me. I explained what DeKalb County Farm Bureau was and that I was a summer intern.

“What is your stance on antibiotics and pesticides?” she questioned. At this point, I had a feeling I was in for a rough conversation. I asked her for clarification, and the next ten minutes were some of the most uncomfortable of my life.

She asked me questions like: “Is there any research that proves pesticides cause cancer? How do family farmers feel about being put out of business? Why do farmers in this area grow only corn and soybeans instead of food people actually want to eat?”

Then, the accusations started. “My family can’t live in the country because of all the stuff in the air. Like the chemicals. I can’t eat conventional meat because of all the antibiotics in it. I’m sure most Illinois farms are family-owned, but nationally that’s not true.”

I felt like I needed a shield to protect myself from her pointed questions and verbal shots. I answered her as reasonably as I could, using statistics as well as personal experience to share my perspective. For example, I told her that 98% of American farms are owned by families. I also explained that as a beef producer, I follow withdrawal procedures after using antibiotics to ensure that no residue is in the meat from treating my animals.  Finally, she asked me about hormone implants in beef cattle, and then cut off my response, saying “I have to get my daughter. It was nice talking to you. And kind of scary.”

I realized afterwards that she had no interest in hearing what I had to say. She may have been posing her comments as questions, but they felt like attacks on my family’s farm practices. It hurt. I believe in what we do and I believe we do it for good reasons, so being attacked is painful. I wondered, if she won’t listen to a farmer, who will she listen to?

This wasn’t the first conversation of this kind I’ve had. Each time a friend, family member, or stranger approaches me with these accusatory questions an icy hand clenches around my heart. Yet it’s also exhilarating to find the words that make people say “I’ve never thought about it that way before.” Then I know I’ve made a connection.

That’s what gives me hope for the future of agriculture. That’s why I’ve decided not to change my major to something like interior design and leave my agricultural roots behind. That’s why, despite the challenges I know will be in my future as an ag communicator, I’m still following my passion.

It’s also true that most people aren’t as aggressive. The other day at the Boone County fair, a man approached me in the beef barn and thanked me for being a farmer. Then, gesturing to the nearby animals, he asked me why some of the horses had nose rings.

That’s a conversation I think I can manage.

This post appeared in the September-October 2014 issue of DeKalb County Farm Bureau’s Connections magazine.

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16 binders_SAI 2014Sixteen densely packed binders in my office symbolize the years of Summer Ag Institutes (SAIs) we’ve conducted in DeKalb County. Each contains the intricate details of 40 hours of speakers, tours, and activities that make up this annual graduate course for teachers.

Planning an SAI means trying to accomplish several objectives at once. These include providing an overview of local agriculture; varying tours and speakers each year so teachers can repeat the course yet always learn something new; planning diverse class experiences tying to a central theme; and fitting in as many learning opportunities as possible without overwhelming or overtiring participants. All of these goals must be achieved while simultaneously meeting the needs of teachers from kindergarten through high school.

Some course components fall into place after a call or e-mail while others take days of planning. Either way, I seem to spend a lot of time agonizing over speaker, tour, and travel times while scribbling, erasing, and re-writing schedules.

This year there were 13 participants in our SAI. Is it worth doing all that work for just 13 teachers? SAI 2014 wind farmI believe it is. Here’s why.

It’s relevant. When you explore modern agriculture, connections to everyday life become obvious quickly. What does the language on a milk jug mean? If some packages of chicken say “raised without hormones,” does it mean some chickens are given hormones? Is there a difference between the corn we feed livestock and the corn in our freezer?

It’s interesting. Did you know that the harsh winter of 2013-2014 killed much of the winter wheat in the county? SAI teachers discovered that some local farmers grow wheat as a source of roughage for cattle and to provide field area for mid-summer application of manure. Do you know the different ways crops are genetically modified? SAI teachers compared traditional breeding, mutagenesis, RNA interference, and transgenics during a lively discussion of GMOs. C’mon, this stuff is fascinating!

It’s transformative. At the end of each class meeting, I distribute “guided” journal instructions for teachers to share their reactions and reflect on how they might incorporate what they learned in their own classroom teaching. Time after time, the responses reveal a profound impact on teachers’ perspectives. Here’s an example: “The love, care, dedication, and hard work [farmers] do day in and day out without a day off to take care of all of us… is truly worthy of being honored!” And another: “It never occurred to me how many career opportunities there are in agriculture. The way technology has become such an intricate part of agriculture is amazing.” DSC_3083

It reaches far beyond the participants. One teacher impacts many students… year after year. Our SAI teachers take their new first-hand agricultural knowledge back to their classrooms. It’s one thing to read about harvest in a textbook, and quite another to hear your teacher describe what it’s like to climb into an enormous combine and see all the technology farmers have at their fingertips. In the end, though, when it comes to evaluating the Summer Ag Institute, the participants say it best. As one tired, but pleased teacher said as she got off the tour bus, “I’ve learned more this week than I have in ages.”

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

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Do you ever ask yourself WHY you do what you do in your job? The obvious answer is to make a living, but beyond that, do you believe in what you do? Why?

I believe in what I do, and here’s why.

I started with Farm Bureau back in 1998 with the respect and appreciation for farming I gained growing up in the country. I also had a degree in education. That was plenty to make me feel committed to my ag literacy role to begin with. But what I’ve gained in the meantime is a profound respect for farmers and what they do.

DeKalb County farmer Randy Willrett

DeKalb County farmer Randy Willrett

What keeps me going now is helping people of all ages and backgrounds understand not only where our food comes from, but reminding them there are real people behind that food. Those people are as committed to doing their jobs with integrity as you and I are. I know a lot of them, and I’ve discovered they’re pretty special.

Oh, I know they’re not all perfect, and the agriculture industry—like any industry—has many ways it can improve. But what I’ve come to realize is that farming takes a level of faith and commitment that most of us can’t comprehend. I mean, come on—spend a few weeks planting thousands of dollars’ worth of seed on hundreds of acres, see it sprout and begin to thrive, then watch it shrivel up when it doesn’t rain for two months…who DOES that? Farmers, that’s who.

Because of my belief in our farmers, it bothers me deeply when I read, see, or hear stories about food and farming that reflect badly on them. Especially since so much of the information out there is based on limited understanding (remember, not only are 98% of us not from farms, most of us are also a few generations removed from farming). Quite frankly, a lot of what we hear about food and the farms it comes from is incomplete, twisted, or downright wrong. That wouldn’t be so bad, but of course our behavior is based on our beliefs, so our decisions on the food we buy and the articles we reshare or retweet are often based on bad information!

That’s why I’m here. I can’t clear everything up; I don’t know enough. I don’t keep track of the price of corn, I can’t keep up with the Farm Bill, and I don’t know the difference in the functions of the rumen and reticulum in a cow’s digestive system. What I hope I can do is share some good information, address a few misconceptions, and talk about why this stuff even matters.

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

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