July 2013
Youth Matters

Kids Meet Real Farmers

These volunteers tell the children about life on the farm.  

at Urban Youth Farm Day

Alabama may be the least windy section of the nation, but the students who attended Urban Youth Farm Day must have felt as though school had moved to Kansas. The wind at the Alabama A&M Winfred Thomas Agriculture Research Station was nonstop, but so was the learning as the kids from several private and public schools discovered something about where their food comes from.

This was the 17th gathering since Sylvia Oakes and Wanda Pharris dreamed up this experience for the school kids of North Alabama.

Oakes said the realization that something had to be done came when she met children who were convinced McDonalds was the source of hamburger meat. She said there was such a lack of knowledge with most children, and especially urban kids, about how food is produced that they decided they must take action.

  This young volunteer brought one of her goats to let the kids milk her and learn about her soap making business.

What they put together is an opportunity for kids to meet real farmers and people who assist farmers in the production of our food and fiber.

Keith Griffin, general manager of Madison County Co-op, gave the main address before the kids visited the many stations set up by the volunteers. Griffin said it was important to speak to the kids about the importance of agriculture.

"It went well, but we are not doing enough to get the message out there. It’s very frustrating."

One of the stations discussed simple gardening techniques in order to plant (pun intended) the idea that kids could actually grow their own food.

At another station, there was an excellent lecture about the lifecycle of the now ubiquitous fire ants and how to control them. At this point, a lively discussion ensued as several of the boys suggested multiple methods of their own, almost all of which involved various explosives. The latest approach in the adult world is to import the phorid fly whose larvae feeds exclusively on the head of the fire ant. Scientists have high hopes, while this method will not eliminate fire ants, it will bring their numbers down to a more manageable level. This should still leave sufficient stock for boys everywhere to hone their military skills.

On down the line, the kids were asked to rate bugs on a scale ranging from "bad bugs" to "good bugs" depending on whether they helped or hindered food production. The point was made to the students that a particular insect’s impact was rarely all bad, but some are much better for the farmer than others.

There was only one station that was definitely not "hands on" and for a very good reason. A couple of the local beekeepers brought a display hive of bees so the kids could watch the bees at work. These farmers discussed how important honey bees are for the pollination of crops and how crop production would plummet without the work of the bees. They also told the students about the mysterious disappearance of the honey bees across North America. The students learned bees are a highly organized society in which each bee has a job and depends on the others to do their jobs so the hive can survive. Children could also see the strange outfits required to work with bees after they have been "smoked" to make them calm as they are being handled.

The students are introduced to basic horsemanship with this beautiful Appaloosa.  

At the "How’d that get on my plate?" station, the kids tracked the foods they ate back to the farm and their actual sources. Elsewhere, kids were discussing container gardening and learning how, by using intensive methods, even small spaces can produce large quantities of food.

Of course, no farm demonstration is complete without farm animals and there was a beautiful Appaloosa horse for the kids to touch and feed.

One young teen had volunteered to bring one of her milk goats, and all sorts of questions were asked about where the milk comes from, can you drink it (she does) and what else can you do with it (she makes soap).

The children also toured the farm on a wagon pulled by a tractor, which by itself was a very exciting experience for those who had only seen tractors in pictures. As they toured, the staff from the experiment stations would explain what the kids were seeing. This was definitely far better than sitting in a classroom and having a teacher try to explain how a farm produces food.

This program is an excellent example of how the time spent in the classroom can be tremendously leveraged with field trips and hands-on demonstrations. It is doubtful many of the kids attending this program will forget the day they went to a real farm and met the folks who actually produced the food they eat.

Oakes and Pharris are good examples for the rest of us to remember. When we see our kids and youth woefully ignorant in some critical area, instead of just rolling our eyes and wondering what the world is coming to, we need to take action and teach them. After all, someone taught us first.

Keith Johnson is a freelance writer from Morgan County.