Trish Hafkey has a bottle calf in the barn and eggs incubating on the kitchen counter. She’s the new emergency homeschool teacher for one child and daycare provider for a toddler. In between, she’s adjusting to working from home in her job as Agriculture in the Classroom Coordinator for Jasper County Farm Bureau.

This spring, because stud­ents are out of school, that job requires imagination and creativity to deliver ag education virtually rather than in person.

“This is the time of year when I would normally be doing a lot of field trips and classroom visits,” says Hafkey. “Seed germination, chick hatchings, spring is a big time for in-person, hands-on lessons and activities. That isn’t going to happen this year.”

What some would see as constraint, Hafkey and others in ag education around the state see as opportunity. Using a combination of video apps, social media posts, website downloads and mailed activity kits, they are reaching students with ag’s message — in constantly expanding new and creative ways.

“We’re always changing to meet teacher’s needs,” says Hafkey. “This is just one more way we can still provide content through the framework we already had.”

Jasper County is an active presence for Iowa Agriculture in the Classroom, offering online resources to back up hands-on activities. Lessons are aligned with Common Core standards for maximum educational benefit, using curriculum generated by National Agriculture in the Classroom and the Iowa Agriculture Literacy Foundation.

“Teachers can go to the last page of the lesson plan to see the Common Core connection,” explains Hafkey. “For instance, the chapter on egg incubation aligns with the next generation science, life cycle and writing standards.” 

Lesson plans

Lesson plans come with in­sight and tips from the Iowa Agriculture Literacy Foundation. Part of a national network, IALF provides Agriculture in the Classroom resources in an easily accessible digital format. Its goal is to increase understanding of the science, engineering, technology and mathematics (STEM) of agriculture and natural resources conservation within the context of food production, consumption and health. 

“We provide online modules that teachers can easily copy and paste into their school’s system,” says Will Fett, IALF executive director. “We integrate the science and social studies of agriculture with reading and math and make it all align with Common Core curriculum standards. Teachers now have to teach in a new environment. So how do we make it easy for the parent without education training, working from home with little time for home schooling?”

Making ag fun

In Jasper County, students receive an educational activity packet in the mail each week. The “Chick Incubation” packet contains a paperback copy of "My Family’s Egg Farm" (there’s also a digital version online), an "Iowa Ag Today" reader with stories on food and nutrition, ag products and careers, as well as a comparison of what people eat around the world.

There’s an activity for the younger kids to cut out pictures of chicks in various stages of the 21-day incubation cycle and attach them to a turning paper plate and a matching game about eggs.

Hafkey says the packets are a hit, giving kids something to look forward to in the mail.

The packet also contains information on how farmers care for hatched eggs and other animals. A weekly video, produced by high school interns, features a live hatch.

“The weekly videos are great,” says Hafkey. “They are posted on Facebook, and the viewer can ask questions at the time or post them later.”

The videos are also backed up by information on the Jasper County Farm Bureau website. “If the video tours a hog farm, kids can go to the website and download a copy of 'My Family’s Pig Farm' and other activities to go with it.”

Hafkey says website traffic has increased 158% in the weeks videos are posted, with 60% of website traffic coming from the Facebook page. The live activity videos garner 150 to 350 views each, and the last two field trips have generated 750 and 1,900 views, respectively. 

“I think that’s fantastic for a county with no large metropolitan area and a population of around 37,000. Of our posts in the last two weeks, we have seen our estimated reach for online content reach at least 2,800 with 770 engagements in our content.” 

Programs across the state

Jasper County is one of several county Farm Bureaus taking advantage of the digital movement. Cass County received a shipment of eggs last week set to hatch in 21 days. What was originally designed to be a classroom activity will now go online.

East Pottawattamie County posts IALF lessons live on Facebook a couple times a week. Ag in the Classroom coordinators in Boone, Polk and Story counties have joined forces to create a Central Iowa AITC Facebook page. New lessons are posted daily Monday through Thursday and are shared on the county websites and Facebook pages as well as the joint one.

In Scott County, Ag Education Coordinator Rebecca Vanderheiden creates and posts original content on the River Bend Ag in the Classroom Facebook page to add to the story.

Buchanan and Delaware counties utilize Facebook to reach their audience, and the Linn County Education Outreach website takes people to a goat farm and answers questions like “Why are there floor slats in pig barns?” Like other counties, it provides links to Ag in the Classroom resources as well as a virtual ag classroom. Recent multifaceted programs focused on pizza, transportation and four-legged farm friends.

In Adair County, Farm Bureau channels its education funding through Ag 4 All, a collaboration with local ag groups and businesses. An army of volunteers visits schools and creates hands-on activities for community celebrations, as well as regular Facebook posts. 

They recently posted their first live video — weighing and tagging a newborn calf — that yielded more than 8,000 views.  

Extending the reach

“The cool part for Ag 4 All was our budget really limits us to only reaching kids in Adair County schools,” explains Deb Hall, Ag 4 All Program coordinator. “The live videos let us reach families outside of Adair County and all over the state and nation.”

“There’s a learning curve in this, for all of us,” says Hafkey. “Some of it is trial and error. But we’ll keep doing whatever it takes to reach kids with ag’s message.”

Queck-Matzie is a freelance writer in Greenfield.