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Opinion

Schroeder: Providing agricultural education inside and outside the classroom

Farmers head into harvest season about the same time teachers head back to school every fall. I come from a long, proud line of teachers, including my grandmother, mother, sister, daughter and daughter-in-law. And what I’ve learned most from watching them in their line of work is that it’s important to share the facts and create learning opportunities wherever they might arise.

A fact we know today is that a large portion of consumers are generations removed from the farm. In order to connect the public with agriculture and develop agricultural literacy, the U.S. Department of Agriculture established Ag in the Classroom in 1981.

From lesson plans to industry trips, interactive learning activities, grants and scholarships, eLearning and more, it is a robust classroom resource designed to supplement and enhance existing curriculum and engage students of all ages with agriculture.

In Illinois, 463,000 students and 25,600 teachers experienced agriculture and made connections to family farms through IAITC lessons last year. The impact this organization is making on students across the country, and specifically within Illinois, is widespread. IAITC brings agriculture to light for many who would otherwise have no opportunity to engage with the industry.

However, it’s no surprise that early 2020 brought challenges for teachers. IAITC quickly adapted to remain steady in its commitment to enlighten school students about farming and agriculture. The program has been busy hosting virtual field trips, activity presentations and cooking demonstrations to expose more students and adults to agriculture.

During the pandemic, IAITC provided students and teachers with lesson links, interactive videos through social media and informational content through its blog, Beyond the Barndoor. Although we’re unable to interact in person, Facebook has been a successful outlet to spread IAITC’s message.

In fact, IAITC’s Facebook page grew by 33% during this time, connecting more people with agriculture than ever before. Throughout spring and summer, IAITC’s Facebook posts reached 600,000 people — and that’s 600,000 more people with the opportunity to learn a thing or two about soybeans.

The Illinois Soybean Association checkoff program supports IAITC through funding and content support. We share soybean-related content on IAITC’s social media platforms, including feature articles from the Soybeans Ag Mag.

These programs are available in counties across Illinois, and any soybean farmer can get involved in local school ag literacy efforts. Visit agintheclassroom.org for details.

Speaking of educational resources, ISA also funds a program called Pod to Plate, an information hub showing how soybeans make it from the field into food, fuel or furniture.

Pod to Plate provides a host of content and resources ready for teachers to use in the classroom. The Pod to Plate story is also available in a book designed for young readers.

Just recently, ISA board member Betsey Emerick created a video of herself reading Pod to Plate — another example of how Illinois soybean farmer can help educate children successfully despite the pandemic.

Backed by ISA’s checkoff and other industry organizations, the strength of IAITC stems from a cooperative spirit and grassroots efforts to get agricultural information in the hands of students. As our population continues to grow, it’s vital to develop agricultural literacy and to continue engaging students with this industry.

The agriculture industry and related fields support 22 million jobs in the United States, 11% of the total U.S. employment according the U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service. That’s a pretty large chunk of the country that’s working in the industry that’s developing food, fiber and natural resources for our country and world.

IAITC provides the education and engagement opportunities that will develop a workforce to keep our state, country and world moving forward. This program wouldn’t be possible without the hard work from our IAITC coordinators, local agriculture literacy coordinators, farmer volunteers and teachers like the ones in my family and many other farm families across the state.

Visit ilsoy.org for Pod to Plate resources, soybean fact sheets and soybean lesson plans.

Doug Schroeder is chairman of the Illinois Soybean Association Board of Directors.

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