Bringing the Farm to the Classroom

Long before virtual learning became a household word, Julie Van Manen of rural Kellogg was helping educators bring farm experiences into central Iowa classrooms. Through the Ag in the Classroom, children gain an insider’s view into agriculture in Iowa from watching baby chicks hatch and cows getting pedicures to hopping in a combine and welcoming baby pigs to the farm.

Passionate about telling agriculture’s story, Van Manen, along with her husband and children, raise soybeans, corn, cattle, hogs and sweet corn on their Jasper County farm, which has been in the family since 1927. As a former middle school teacher, Julie combines her two passions – education and agriculture to help teachers develop agricultural literacy in students. Van Manen has been involved with Ag in the Classroom for nearly three decades as a volunteer. For the past four years, she has served as an educational specialist working for Polk County Farm Bureau, which is a part of Central Iowa Ag in the Classroom and also serves Boone, Dallas and Story counties.

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Sharing Agriculture’s Story

Today, people are an average of three to four generations removed from the farm and only 2% of the population farms, which means sharing the story of agriculture has never been more important.

“Our goal is to inspire and make it easier for educators to teach students about Iowa agriculture while meeting math, science, social studies and language arts standards,” Van Manen says. “We offer creative lessons, hands-on projects and programs that integrate technology. Students learn about agriculture’s role in Iowa’s history, where our food comes from, conservation and how technology continues to impact agriculture in our state.”

Iowa Agriculture in the Classroom is a non-profit program funded through county Farm Bureau organizations and all the content is free. In addition to virtual learning opportunities, the program also offers lesson plans, field trips to the farm and professional development workshops for teachers. The workshops are held in the summer, giving teachers who participate continuing education credits.

“A big portion of our curriculum involves STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math),” Van Manen says. “It’s always fun to teach children and it’s equally amazing to see the reactions from teachers, especially when we start to talk about technology on the farm. I love sharing the career opportunities that agriculture provides – from accounting to biology to business majors, the possibilities are endless.”

In addition to working with Ag in the Classroom, Van Manen is also a CommonGround volunteer, a joint partnership between the Iowa Soybean Association, Iowa Corn Growers Association and National Corn Growers Association. Thirty-eight women represent Iowa in this national campaign, putting a face to farm families and the women who also purchase food for their families. The Iowa Food & Family Project helps to sponsor both organizations as part of its commitment to increasing consumer awareness about modern agriculture.

Van Manen is especially enthusiastic about highlighting the significant ways technology is used in modern agriculture.

“After the August derecho – when many farms were without electricity – some people wondered why a farm needs electricity to operate,” she explains. “Today’s farms rely heavily on technology, which takes electricity. The operations are high-tech from running fans and sprinklers for keeping pigs comfortable in the heat to programming computers to get the proper feed rations from bins."

How Teachers Use Ag in the Classroom

Ag in the Classroom was created in the early 1980s to re-integrate agriculture knowledge through education programs starting first with the youngest students and continuing through high school.

Ag in the Classroom programs offer versatility and customization. Some teachers use resources once a year and others use them once a month. The programs can be tailored to fit what a teacher wants for his or her Classroom. For example, Central Iowa Ag in the Classroom shows opportunities for farm chats, where students can Skype live with a farmer or ag industry professional as they plant soybeans, harvest corn or feed livestock. Opportunities exist to discuss seeds and plant life cycles, careers in STEM and much more. The curriculum connections are endless!

In addition, hands-on and engaging lessons are available where students explore the various facets of agriculture and learn how it is relevant, exciting and offers future career opportunities for all. The outreach team also works with educators to design field trips, grow crops, bring in agriculture speakers and design STEM lessons.

“Like most organizations, COVID-19 caused us to pivot because we weren’t in the schools delivering programs,” Van Manen says. “Collectively, the four of us who work for Central Iowa Ag in the Classroom each did a video lesson for nine weeks from March 25 to May 20.”

As a result, 36 new video lessons are accessible via Facebook, including topics such as:

  • How did they build that grain bin?
  • The buzz on pollinators
  • Corn and soybean planting
  • Planting a vegetable garden
  • Watching a cow get a pedicure
  • Crafts using wool
  • Chick hatching
  • Farm tours involving cows, pigs, turkeys, soybeans and corn
  • Solar energy

“It’s essential that we reach youth because they are the future consumers who will one day purchase food for their own families,” Van Manen explains. “We want them to know that farmers care deeply about the land and the animals.”

Most Iowa Agriculture in the Classroom programs are implemented by local and regional organizations. Find a contact in your area.