Iowa students learn how agriculture impacts all of our lives through the Loess Hills Ag In The Classroom outreach program.

You don’t have to be a farmer to know about agriculture,” says Loess Hills Agriculture in the Classroom Program Coordinator Melanie Bruck. The self-described city mouse transformed into Iowa farm spouse not only carries that mantle herself, she shares with PK-12 students in five western Iowa counties through the Loess Hills Agriculture in the Classroom (LHAITC) program.

LHAITC is a regional effort of the Iowa Agriculture Literacy Foundation (IALF). It was created with the help of the Carroll, Crawford, Harrison, Shelby and West Pottawattamie county Farm Bureaus and serves 21 school districts in those counties. 

Through the program, Bruck aligns lessons at all levels with CORE curriculum standards to help kids understand what goes on at the farm and how that fits into the local, regional and global system of food and fiber production.

“STEM is a farmer’s day,” says Bruck. Science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) are all routine parts of a farmer’s life and job. So is reading and writing and social studies. “Agriculture doesn’t need to be a class,” says Bruck. “Agriculture is in every class.”

Elementary school students learn about plants, food and non-food products, and soil by studying a stalk of corn or a pumpkin patch. They learn life cycles watching chicks hatch. They learn math by plotting a Christmas tree farm.

Middle school students take virtual grocery store tours to identify what food looks like and where it comes from. They tackle technological problems and create new tools to aid production.

A recent high school project taught beef grades and cuts to a consumer science class.

It’s about teaching agricultural literacy. As defined by IALF, an agriculturally literate person is one who understands and can communicate the source and value of agriculture as it affects quality of life.

It’s also about introducing a bit of fun and a hands-on experience into CORE subjects.

Bruck readily admits she was not always agriculturally literate. The airline attendant based in Chicago knew little of the farm before she met and married her husband. She was unfamiliar with food that didn’t come from the local grocery store.

“I never considered where food comes from,” says Bruck. “I didn’t realize people could be responsible for their own food.”

She learned the real story on her family’s farm, raising crops, beef and kids who want to farm. And for the past three years, she has shared the story at the invite of teachers and school administrators.

When not in the classroom, or on the road, Bruck works to educate herself on the next topic, as well as writing a blog post for IALF and regular Facebook posts on the program.

LHAITC comes at no cost to the schools. It is a nonprofit supported by Farm Bureau, Iowa Pork Producers Association, Iowa Beef industry Council and other producer groups, as well as industry leaders like Cargill.

In the past year alone, LHAITC has conducted 227 classroom presentations and numerous virtual story times, reaching more than 6,000 students and coordinating with 331 teachers.

Bruck uses lesson plans and supporting materials provided by IALF and the Agriculture in the Classroom series. For younger kids, she utilizes the "My Family’s Farm" book series. Real life props are part of the presentation. 

“The kids are very receptive,” says Bruck. “If there’s knowledge out there, kids want to have it.”

Like nearly every other aspect of life, COVID put a wrench in agricultural literacy plans, driving the effort online. Bruck seized the challenge, offering virtual field trips, like the middle school tour of Hy-Vee or a third grade trip to the pasture. Every seventh grade family consumer science student from Denison joined in a virtual classroom to learn about livestock, food and nutrition.

Teachers receive a kit of needed supplies prior to virtual events.

Involving teachers is part of the plan. IALF conducts "train the trainer" sessions, and Bruck is seeing teachers take initiative, applying for grant dollars to buy their own egg incubators rather than rely on a LHAITC visit. The curriculum materials at Bruck’s disposal are available to them as well. 

LHAITC wants to make agriculture common household knowledge. It is well on its way. Since its beginnings in 2018, the effort has reached 16,455 students, teachers and community members. Requests by teachers for LHAITC programming have more than doubled in the past year. Bruck is beginning a series of library programs and is working to enhance the group’s relationship with FFA.

This multi-county approach is one model in delivering agricultural literacy to local students and communities.

Bruck wants students to be educated consumers, be aware of agriculture-related career options and better understand the role agriculture plays in the state’s economy and in Iowans’ individual lives.

“Agriculture is part of everyone’s everyday life,” says Bruck. “Everything a person gets to be, or hopes to be, is possible because they trust a farmer to feed their family.”

Queck-Matzie is a freelance writer from Greenfield.