An ag education

North Central Iowa Ag in the Classroom teaches children about agriculture

-Submitted photo Brenda Mormann works with Kossuth farmer Jeff Schutjer on a harvest Farm Chat. A Farm Chat brings students to the farm virtually through Zoom.

Ask a child where their food comes from. Do they know?

One organization has made it their goal to educate children about Iowa agriculture and help their schools and teachers deliver that message and most recently have begun making that possible in Webster County.

North Central Iowa Ag in the Classroom, a non-profit organization, has been serving schools in north Iowa for more than 20 years.

Brenda Mormann, program director for North Central Iowa Ag in the Classroom said they support elementary and middle school teachers throughout nine counties, in their agriculture education efforts through ag education weeks where trained staff deliver lessons to individual classrooms.

In the beginning

A student from Clear Creek Elementary School in Clear Lake works on a lesson that demonstrates the food web of farm, commodity, food or clothing and making those connections.

North Central Iowa Ag in the Classroom started with the assistance of five county Farm Bureau organizations that teamed together to establish a 501C3 non-profit organization.

“They were interested in increasing ag literacy and ag education in the north Iowa area. There weren’t a lot of resources, materials or curriculum for teachers to use at the time and they were intimidated about teaching agriculture,” said Mormann. “Those Farm Bureau boards thought it was a priority.”

Over the years, the North Central Iowa Ag in the Classroom has grown from supporting five counties to nine including: Cerro Gordo, Emmet, Franklin, Hancock, Hardin, Kossuth, Worth, Winnebago and most recently Webster.

“Webster County came on board with North Central Iowa Ag in the Classroom in February, 2020,” said Mormann.

Agriculture education might not necessarily be something new to the students of Webster County, however.

“The Webster County Farm Bureau board decided they wanted to put more time and more money and more emphasis on ag education, so the best way they determined to do that was to join our organization,” said Mormann.

Alison Swanson, of Harcourt had been working on some ag in the classroom education events in the area prior to Webster County joining the North Central Iowa Ag in the Classroom organization. She is now a classroom educator with the organization.

“That was a big win for us when we took on Webster County, we could also gain Alison,” said Mormann. “When you are talking about having a person in every building, the potential of Webster County is about 4,000-plus students that we could see. The only way we could do that is to have another person with boots on the ground in that area.”

About North Central Iowa Ag in the Classroom

Mormann said they have a board of directors that includes Farm Bureau members from each of the nine counties.

“Each county Farm Bureau pays annual dues in order to be a part of the North Central Iowa Ag in the Classroom. Once they join our organization, they have the opportunity to have two seats on our board,” she said.

A vast majority of their funding comes from support of state and local agricultural business and grants.

In addition to Mormann, there are five part time staff people who deliver the face to face lessons in the classrooms each year, during that school’s ag education week.

“We have 39 buildings that sign up for a week for us to spend in their building,” she said. “We have a staff person go in and do a lesson in every classroom whether that is preschool through fourth grade or preschool through eighth grade.”

Why is ag education so important?

Mormann said children are so far removed from the farm that when you ask them where they get their food from, the most common answer is the grocery store.

When a classroom educator from North Central Iowa Ag in the Classroom goes to a school, they oftentimes come in with a corn stalk and a soybean plant.

“The kids are amazed just seeing a corn plant up close – how tall it is, how many ears of corn are on it and to see the roots,” said Mormann.

Oftentimes, that is the first time they learn what those plants are.

“We’ve been in a school that was literally surrounded by a cornfield. We asked if the kids knew what was growing around them and they did not,” she said. “It is just so important. Kids are so far removed from the farm. They don’t have any contact with that and it is so important for them to know where their food comes from.”

Mormann said it is also important that they know farmers care for the land and they care for their animals and are responsible stewards.

“There is just too much of the other side being told. We have the opportunity, and especially with kids – it’s important there is ag in the classroom and we can deliver that message for the farmers.”

Mormann said when a school schedules their ag education week with North Central Iowa Ag in the Classroom, they receive a list of lessons that are available and the teacher chooses what they want presented.

“There are two or three to choose from at each grade level and they all meet the standards for their social studies and science that the teachers are looking for,” she said.

Preschool and kindgergarten

For the younger aged children, Mormann said they are presented a general introduction to farming.

One lesson is titled, “Is This My Home?”

“We sit in a circle and show the kids different animals and we have a zoo set up and a farm. We talk about which animals live in a zoo and which ones live on a farm, what the differences are and who takes care of them and that livestock becomes food and fiber for us,” she said.

First, second and third grades

Mormann said for the first, second and third grade students, they will discuss plant and animal development and life cycles.

“We do some lessons on like dairy cows and on sheep and talk about the difference between an animal or a plant and the source of foods they eat all of the time,” she said.

There is also a STEM lesson available.

Mormann said the students are given a Ziploc bag full of items and they are challenged to build a farm implement.

Fourth, fifth and six grades

The focus on the upper elementary aged students leans more on commodities and the supply and demand and imports and exports of them.

A long time favorite for those grade levels has been a lesson on ethanol production.

“One of our most popular lessons we have had around for 20 years is on ethanol where they actually make ethanol in a Ziploc bag with animal crackers, sugar, yeast and warm water. While they are waiting for that process to develop, they watch a virtual tour of an ethanol plant.”

Seventh and eighth grades

A bigger quest awaits the seventh and eight grade students.

Mormann said there is a lesson called the “Armadillo Challenge.”

“Kids are told about a problem that actually happens in Brazil where the armadillos dig holes in fields,” she said. “We challenge them to try to figure out how to solve the problem without harming the armadillos or the ecosystem and to do it cost effectively and sustainably.”

Farm Chats

Due to restrictions of visitors to schools due to Covid-19, Mormann said some of their ag education weeks have been postponed. They are hopeful to get those made up later in the year, but in the meantime have switched gears and have provided some outdoor lessons as well as some virtual opportunities called Farm Chats.

“Our Farm Chats have been really popular,” she said. “It’s another way to connect with those kids and have that agriculture reach with them and still do something that they wouldn’t normally get to do.”

Mormann said they connect with classrooms via Zoom and that puts students in the cab of a combine or out in the field along with the farmer.

“We go out to the field and start out in the combine with the farmer. They get to see the combine work and the farmer is talking to the students the whole time. We explain the technology and talk about what is going on in the combine itself. They see the corn being unloaded. They get to see the whole process. That always gets a lot of ooohs and ahs – they love seeing that,” she said.

Each Farm Chat lasts about 30 minutes. The last 10 minutes gives the students a chance to ask the farmer questions.

“Fall harvest Farm Chats have always been popular, but this year, it has been out of this world because a lot of schools aren’t going to be allowed do any fields trips to the farms they used to do, or pumpkin patches or apple orchards or anything like that,” she said.

Mormann said she is hopeful to continue on with Farm Chats after the fall.

North Central Iowa Ag in the Classroom has been working with other producers and agricultural industries in hopes to provide students with virtual experiences of livestock farms, cooperatives and more.

“There are lots of videos out there the teachers can use in their classrooms, which is great. Some of them are really well done, but with the Farm Chats, there is just that extra – it makes a difference when the kids actually feel they are a part of what is happening and not just sitting there and watching it,” she said.


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