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Quote About Dandelions

"You fight dandelions all weekend, and late Monday afternoon there they are, pert as all get out, in full and gorgeous bloom, pretty as can be, thriving as only dandelions can in the face of adversity."

-- Hal Borland

Monday, January 16, 2017

At-Risk & Agriculture: Reaching and Retaining Urban and At-Risk Youth

(This was originally presented in January 2017 at the American Farm Bureau Federation Annual Convention and IDEAg Trade Show in Phoenix, AZ.)

As part of the requirements for an honors group I am in, I have been conducting a two-year research study on the benefits that urban, at-risk middle school students could receive from a basic introductory course in Agriculture. I chose this project topic due to experiences I had while a volunteer zookeeper at a local Zoo in the “Petting Farm” area – members of the public – both affluent and poor - were always astonished when they found out what a chicken or a cow looked like in real life.

People would come running up to me screaming, “What is THAT?!” And I would have the opportunity to explain to them that, "THAT" was a cow.

An Angus-cross
Or other times, someone would ask me, “Is that where my KFC comes from?” and I would get to explain that while their KFC didn’t come from bantam silkie chickens, they were on the right track.
A bantam silkie chicken

A Sanderson Farms truck hauling meat chickens heads down the highway, bringing fresh meat to you!

I realized at that time what an impact an education in Agriculture could have on my community and I decided I would do my part to make that education available to community members.

Defining Terms

Before I go any further, I am going to define At-Risk and Urban, because these terms can be ambiguous or have different meanings, depending on their context.

  • “At-Risk” is defined as a student who is likely to fail at school; usually by dropping out. (National Center for Urban Education Statistics)
  • “Urban” is typically large cities or areas with characteristics such as an increasing population of English language Learners or relatively high poverty rates. Urban can be further broken down into three categories: 
    • Urban intensive: Cities >1 million people 
    • Urban Emergent: Cities <1 million people, but are still very large
    • Urban Characteristic: Cities that are medium-large and share characteristics of the other two (Milner, “But What Is Urban Education”)

Why It Matters to You

Clearly this project matters to me, as I have spent two years of my life working on it, but why should it matter to you? The number one most important reason is that a wave of uninformed members of the public are dictating what happens at the production level of Agriculture. In short, your jobs are being run by consumers who don’t know anything about what you do. Who think that steak comes wrapped in cellophane and who have never seen a field, much less a worm, in their life. Yet we cannot look down on these people because they aren’t stupid – not at all – they are simply the product of an educational system that has chosen to focus on other things and has left Agriculture behind.

A Cheviot eweling that will be shown later in her life

Why It Matters to Them

Agriculture education matters to me, and it matter to you, but why should it matter to at-risk students living in inner cities? Because an education in Agriculture provides students with new opportunities for careers that they don’t even know exist.

It gives them the opportunity to learn skills that they could live off of or use as a hobby. A class in veterinary science that includes even small animals like a guinea pig gives students who are bullies and jerks the chance to learn empathy, compassion, and patience – skills that cannot be taught in almost any other setting.

It gives them the knowledge to make better consumer decisions in the grocery store and knowledge on how to respond when they see an inflammatory article online about the dangers of GMOs and antibiotics in their food.

And it gives them the chance to change the way that society at large views agriculture.
High school is setting the stage for students’ careers and collegiate decisions, and middle school sets the stage for high school. Currently, many of our nations’ students are entering high school with little-to-no background information on agriculture. We cannot expect those students to take Agriscience classes – should they even be offered – if they don’t even understand what agriculture is.

What Educators Said

In my research, I conducted a survey of middle school teachers in large cities throughout Tennessee and North Mississippi. The responses I got were very supportive of seeing Agriculture incorporated into their programs. Some of the responses I got were:

·         “It would give them structure and would be better for students that are active during the school year with extracurricular activities.”
·         “It would allow them to gain survival skills as well as learn how to lead a healthy lifestyle.”
·         “If disadvantaged students studied agriculture and linked it to other disciplines, they have the potential to learn not only healthier eating habits, but also how it fits into the greater economy. They could learn skills from raising livestock and crops to preparation, marketing and more - just within the food industry. And by tying it into technology, math, and engineering, they may find inroads to fields that they otherwise might not consider.”

Reaching Students

To reach our urban students, we have to be able to show them that the knowledge they gain from Agriculture classes will benefit their future and their present lives. We have to start recruiting in middle schools if we expect our students to be interested in high school. And we absolutely must have a presence in their community.

Community support is one of the number one reasons that a student may succeed. The community support will influence family support, and this is critical. We have to convince urban families that we are worthy of their child’s interest – careers in Agriculture just aren’t viewed as highly as sports or music careers in a lot of urban communities.

A crop of soybeans, ready for harvest

Retaining Students

To retain these students, we must ensure that students who are low-achieving are receiving equally as much attention as high-achieving ones. Simply because a student does not excel academically doesn’t mean that they aren’t going to be brilliant in a hands-on career.

We must also push for culturally inclusive programs. The majority of inner city students don’t look like me, and many of them don’t speak my language as their primary one. We have to have a program that takes note of this and includes them. Far too often we see programs that say something along the lines of, “And the pilgrim settlers began to plow (Oh yeah, and the Native Americans showed them that if they planted fish with their corn it would grow better) but the pilgrims did all this work and were able to cultivate the land.” While that is totally true, and very important for our students to knwo, that course of learning has the tendency to make White People the focus of it, totally discrediting the thousands of years of agricultural production that was done by millions of people that weren’t white. Some of the most historically advanced irrigation systems have been unearthed as relics in the Andes mountains. Israel currently leads the world in many Agricultural technologies. We have to make sure that students of every race and background understand that their culture has had a hand in getting Agriculture where it is today, and that they can continue that legacy.

And again, we must create a community focus. The more involved that we as an agricultural community become in primary education, the more we have a chance to shape and influence it and thus change societal perceptions of Agriculture.

How to Get Involved

How can we accomplish these goals of reaching and retaining students?
We can volunteer with local organizations and clubs already in existence. Our physical presence can be life changing for these students. If you don’t know what currently exists in your community, contact your Extension Agents and see if Master Gardeners, 4-H, or FFA is partnering with inner-city schools in any way. If you are a 4-H or FFA leader, consider having your members practice their speeches and reasons at middle schools.

A Collegiate 4-H student giving back to her local 4-H club
We can also talk to our local schools to find out what programs are already being offered to students by the school and then become active with those programs.
Time is a precious commodity, so if you are pressed for it, consider donating materials to school programs. If the school has a garden, perhaps you can donate top soil, or seeds, or a few shovels or rakes. These donations can be tax deductible, depending on which organization you give to.

Kids love field trips, and seeing a farm in working action can be highly influential to them. You may be able to have students out while planting or harvesting and let them simply stand on the side of your field and watch – I’ve had the opportunity to do this in my college classes, and if a 21 year old city-slicker can get excited from watching a combine drive past, image how excited a 12 or 13 year old would be.

Now, if bringing people to your farm makes you uncomfortable, is a biohazard, or just doesn’t work, consider taking the field trip to the students. I can’t tell you how excited a class of kids would be if you pulled up to their school with a cow in a trailer. Or if a biology class is talking about plant systems, bring in a few corn plants, or soybean, or cotton, or wheat. Whatever you’ve got is something that they don’t, and they want to learn about it.

A Case combine harvesting a test plot of corn

A Call to Action

This was only a few ideas to get you started, but there are many more out there. I encourage each of you create your own list for getting involved in a school’s community.

I want to encourage you – we are living in a time period when Agriculture is needed more than ever, yet is overlooked, unappreciated, and insulted on a daily basis. We cannot change people’s mindsets by being angry. Instead, we can provide the knowledge that is lacking and do it with kindness. We have the chance to mold society through our Nation’s youth, and I strongly encourage you to get out there and do so for the sake of Agriculture.

"You know, farming looks mighty easy when your plow is a pencil, and you're a thousand miles from the corn field." - Dwight Eisenhower Address at Bradley University, Peoria, Illinois, 9/25/56