Pa. program shows children where their food comes from

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ag encounters
Students from Laurel School District learn about sheep during the annual Ag Encounter event, where fourth graders across Lawrence County learn about local agriculture.

Emily Withers stood before a crowd of energetic fourth graders and asked an easy question.

“How many of you guys love chicken nuggets?” There was a chorus of affirmative responses.

Then, the Wilmington FFA member asked a harder question, “Do you know where they come from on a chicken?”

Children raised their hands and shouted out their guesses: the feet, the legs, the wings.

Emily then used a live chicken, held by a fellow FFA member, to explain where the different cuts of meat come from on a chicken.

This exercise was part of the 21st annual Ag Encounter, an educational experience hosted by Penn State Extension for fourth graders in Lawrence County. About 900 students from the county’s eight public school districts and one private school learned about agriculture and where their food comes from.

“It’s not just to get them into agriculture. It’s about having an informed consumer,” said Craig Conforti, client relations manager with Penn State Extension.

Around 450 students each day, on Oct. 1 and 2, rotated through 12 stations that covered various parts of the industry: grains, beef, dairy, sheep, poultry, swine, fruit, vegetables, soil, forestry, bees and a station called Meet the Farmer. The event was held at the Lawrence County Fairgrounds.

Volunteer presenters taught at each station, said Bryan Dickinson, business operations manager and former 4-H educator with Penn State Extension. Presenters included farmers, commodity group members, conservation educators and students from local FFA chapters.

Dickinson said they focus on fourth grade for the event because that’s where agriculture falls in the school science standards.

Making connections

Ag Encounter was dreamed up in 1999 by local dairy farmer and extension board member Dick Kind, Dickinson said.

Lawrence County is a mix of rural and urban areas, with about a quarter of the county’s population living in the county seat, New Castle.

At first, Ag Encounter focused on the urban New Castle School District. But it grew to include all school districts, as it became clear that all students needed this type of experience, Dickinson said.

“There is the assumption that these rural kids know where their food comes from, but they don’t,” Dickinson said. “We’ve realized through the years that there’s a disconnect between the kids and where their food comes from.”

The education stations are focused on food and fiber, and then specifically on the products available in the area, Dickinson said.

Where’s the beef

The beef station was handled by students from Laurel High School’s FFA chapter. The FFA members covered everything about beef cattle’s journey from pregnancy to the grocery store, said Randy Harrold, Laurel’s agriculture education instructor and FFA adviser.

The fourth graders played a game to guess the cuts of meat on a cow, placing cards on a cow silhouette where they thought different cuts belonged.

At the end, they got to pet a steer brought in by one of the FFA members.

Harrold said Ag Encounter is one of his favorite days as a teacher. He gets to watch his high school students shine at public speaking and share their knowledge on farming.

“This is just as good for my students as it is for the younger ones,” he said.

Although Laurel has a strong agriculture education program, with around 100 students in the FFA program, he knows there’s still a need for this type of experience.

Harrold said he starts off his freshman classes by asking what they remember from Ag Encounter in fourth grade. Most of them remember petting animals, and some also remember learning about the origin of their foods.

“Just so they know that meat doesn’t just appear in the grocery store,” Harrold said.

Getting a closer look

Layne Kind, grandson of the event founder, manned the Meet the Farmer station, where he talked about the family’s dairy farm in Plain Grove Township. Kind milks about 360 cows and farms about 1,000 acres with his father, Dean, and uncle, Dwight.

Growing up, Kind said he was able to get out of school to help out with the event, assisting his grandmother with food preparation.

When he was in high school, he was one of the FFA members teaching at the different stations.

For the past six years, Kind has been handling the Meet the Farmer station. His grandfather was involved in Ag Encounter until he passed away a couple years ago.

“I’m excited every year to continue to teach the kids,” Kind said.

This year and last year, he even taught to his two older sons. His youngest will come through in a couple years.

Kind said he gets the biggest reaction from the children when he shows the large needles and pills needed to treat a sick cow. That elicits some gasps.

On top of learning about where the food comes from, Kind said it’s important for the children to learn the work that goes into producing food. He had a welding helmet on the table as he presented and showed a video of silage being chopped.

The work involved in agriculture is something he’s also instilling in his sons as they grow up on the farm.

“For some of these kids, it might be the first time they’re up close with agriculture,” Kind said.

(Reporter Rachel Wagoner can be contacted at 800-837-3419 or rachel@farmanddairy.com.)

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Rachel is a reporter with Farm and Dairy and a graduate of Clarion University of Pennsylvania. She married a fourth-generation beef and sheep farmer and settled down in her hometown in Beaver County. Before coming to Farm and Dairy, she worked at several daily and weekly newspapers throughout Western Pennsylvania covering everything from education and community news to police and courts.

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