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Food-ucating Iowans

Iowa leads the nation, and the world, in agriculture. But that doesn’t mean every Iowan knows a lot about agriculture or how farmers grow the food that ends up on their plates.

A new organization, launched earlier this year, aims to educate Iowans of all ages  about modern agriculture and how our food is grown and raised.

The Iowa Agriculture Literacy Foundation (IALF) is planning work­shops and activities throughout its inaugural year to introduce agricultural lessons to local classrooms.

In addition, the IALF will reach out to all ages through social media and community workshops to raise awareness about today’s food and farming issues, said Will Fett, IALF’s executive director.

“We want to represent all of agriculture. So whether it’s conventional farming or organics or Iowa specialty crops, we really want to educate people on the entire breadth of agriculture,” Fett said.

Before joining the IALF, Fett worked for the National FFA and was an ag teacher in his home state of Montana. Fett leads the IALF’s three-person staff, including Cindy Hall, education program manager, who previously coordinated Polk County Farm Bureau’s Ag in the Classroom program; and Sherri Neet, administrative assistant.

The IALF staff will help expand ag literacy efforts in Iowa by visiting classrooms, meeting with teachers and school administrators and providing financial support for education activities.

“Looking at how agriculture has changed in the last 15 years with technology implementations, even people who grew up on a farm 20 or more years ago, they don’t know what a modern farm looks like,” Fett said.

“In a lot of respects, we have to start with our own (here in Iowa) and make sure that people who do have a passion for agriculture understand what today’s agriculture looks like.”

The IALF will serve as a central resource to support existing Ag in Classroom programs, coordinated locally by county Farm Bureaus.

"We’re going to rely on that network of volunteers and really elevate Ag in the Classroom and see how we can help," Fett said.

Most Ag in the Classroom programs are focused on providing ag curriculum to kindergarten to third grade students. And when students reach high school, they learn about agriculture through STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) curriculum.

So the IALF staff initially plans to focus on delivering ag lessons to fourth through eighth grade classrooms, where there is a gap in existing resources for teachers and volunteers, Fett said.

“Agriculture ends up being the perfect application of all those concepts that they are teaching anyway,” Fett said. “You can talk about fertilizer application rates, and you have a great math lesson. You can talk about geography and why agriculture moved across the world the way it did, and that’s the perfect social studies.”

This winter, the IALF staff will host pre-service ag literacy workshops for college students who plan to teach in a classroom once they earn their education degrees.

And next summer, the IALF will host regional summer ag institutes to train elementary and middle school teachers how to incorporate agriculture in their curriculums.

“The teachers need to have a comfort level with being able to talk about agriculture,” Fett said. “And because teachers are often removed from the farm, just like the rest of the population, we need to elevate their understanding of agriculture and, likewise, their comfort level.”

The IALF has an ag education advisory council to help ensure its ag literacy efforts are meeting state and national education standards. Representatives of the council include Sara Derry, south-central STEM regional manager at Drake University; Larry Escalada, University of Northern Iowa science education chair; and Rob Denson, president of Des Moines Area Community College; among others representing agriculture and education in the state.

The IALC was launched through a partnership with the Iowa Farm Bureau, Iowa Pork Producers As­­sociation, Iowa Cattle­men’s As­­soc­­iation, Iowa Corn Growers Assoc­iation, Iowa Soybean As­­sociation, Silos and Smokestacks, Growmark/FS and DuPont Pioneer.