The ageless saying that children absorb information like sponges is certainly true of young people learning about agriculture. The vast majority of youth has little knowledge about agriculture, but learns new information so quickly.
Over the years, many agricultural organizations and Extension staff have partnered to develop, plan and implement various educational programs which help young people, their teachers and chaperones increase their understanding and knowledge of agriculture and natural resources. Interest in knowing how our food is produced, including where the food we eat comes from, is at an all-time high and provides many opportunities to reach the younger audience.
“There are several reasons that my class participates – Saline’s heritage was based on farming and this educational trip is a reminder to our students about the importance of agriculture,” Trina Bell from Pleasant Ridge Elementary School in Saline said. “The majority of the students in Saline are now several generations away from the farm and have a limited understanding of agriculture; and this program provides an opportunity for them to learn where their food comes from and how hard farmers work to produce food for everyone.”
Twenty-four years ago in Washtenaw County, Michigan, a long-lasting partnership was formed between the Washtenaw County Farm Bureau, Michigan State University Extension and the Washtenaw Farm Council. At that time, many of the farms who had hosted farm tours for elementary students did not feel comfortable taking on the liability for young farm visitors or had changed their farm operation from livestock to crops only. A different approach for teaching about agriculture was needed and the Rural Education Days or the Project RED program was born. Every third grade classroom in the county was invited to participate in this educational opportunity which was held at the Farm Council Grounds. Interest in learning about agriculture and natural resources was so great that within two years the program was held over the course of three days in order to accommodate schools and students from around the county. This inaugural program was recognized with several awards and was the model program which was shared around the state.
The 24th annual Project RED was held on April 23-25, 2014 and it continues to be a partnership between MSU Extension, Washtenaw County Farm Bureau and the Washtenaw Farm Council. Since the first program in 1991, over 52,000 third graders have participated in the program, along with 9,600 teachers and chaperones. Many local agriculture and natural resources organizations, businesses, groups and interested volunteers assist with the program. The Washtenaw program has had minor changes over the years to meet the time schedule of the schools, and is unique in that it involves having a kick-off session featuring “A Walk Through Michigan Commodities” where Extension staff work with 4-H and FFA teens to share information on where and why certain agricultural products are produced around the state. Each day is split into two sessions and includes four other learning centers, and a large commodity showcase featuring samples of agricultural products. The learning stations include dairy, farm animals, water quality and growing corn. The Taste of Michigan offers participants samples of pork, lamb, beef or milk, apples, ice cream, vegetables, dried cherries, dried blueberries, honey butter, soynuts, sunflower seeds and popcorn. The showcase also offers an opportunity to have interactive educational stations which can help enhance what the students have learned and these can be changed from year to year. Popular stations have included wool spinning, wildlife, grains, and nutrition education by MSU Extension staff. New stations in 2014 featured dairy versus non-dairy products, matching Michigan products to the city they were made and a game based on animal products and by-products. The Washtenaw County Conservation District also provides a tree seedling for each student. In addition, each student receives an information packet with age appropriate agriculture facts and participating teachers receive an information and activity packet on agriculture and natural resources and a book that they can use in their classroom.