By Jessica Walker
Each year, thousands of elementary school students across Tennessee are given the opportunity to learn a little more about agriculture. No, they aren’t in a classroom – they are learning by digging in and getting their hands dirty at Farm Day events.
“The Farm Day program gives students hands-on agricultural experience where they can see, touch, feel and do,” says Kristy Taylor Chastine, state coordinator of special programs for Farm Bureau Women.
The Roots of Farm Day
The program began in the mid-1980s at Jackson State Community College as a three-day event with about 1,000 students participating. “It was so well received,” says Charles Curtis, director of special programs for the Tennessee Farm Bureau. “It’s the best thing we have put together and started.”
Today, Farm Day events are held in approximately 65 counties across the state. “It’s an educational process, putting the students in touch with where their food and fiber comes from,” Curtis says. “It’s amazing how little they know. You show them cotton, and they think it’s wool off a sheep.”
But they learn quickly. At the Farm Day event in Cookeville, attended by 1,100 first-graders from Putnam and Jackson counties, students rotated through 26 agriculture-related stations at Tennessee Technological University. “The children are exposed to everything from bee-keeping to horticulture to dairy,” says Don McCaslin, Putnam County Farm Bureau Agency Manager. “It’s an all-day affair.”
Over in the east side of the state, more than 800 people participated in Sullivan County’s Farm Day, held at the Charles Newland Farm in Kingsport. “It was wonderful,” says Sheila Earhart, Sullivan County Farm Bureau Women Chair. “We had some new, innovative ideas.” This particular event, targeting second-grade students, included folks from Sullivan County, Bristol City and Kingsport City school systems and students from local private schools. “We have a special need in East Tennessee because we are becoming more urban,” Earhart says. “Farming has declined. People need to know how important agriculture is and how it touches our lives every day.”
One of West Tennessee’s Farm Day events offered all fourth graders in Weakley County the opportunity to tour two separate farms as well as enjoy lunch and games at UT Martin’s Agricultural Pavilion. “We like for the kids to smell and hear what really takes place on a farm,” says Andy Holt, Weakley County Chair of the Young Farmers and Ranchers Association. “We’re trying our very best to show them there is a wide, diverse range of careers in agriculture they can pursue. There’s a lot of opportunity for students.”
Fun on the Farm
While Farm Day events primarily focus on teaching students where their food and fiber come from, they are also intended to be fun. “When they’re young, you can’t educate unless you entertain,” Holt says. This goal is accomplished through hands-on activities, allowing students to truly get a feel for agriculture. “In Williamson County, there is a plastic cow the kids can actually milk,” Curtis says. “Other counties have live cows they can milk.”
Across the state, the events require several volunteers and organizations in order to keep them running smoothly. Sullivan County’s Farm Day was operated by FFA students, the Farm Service Agency, Rural Development, retired teachers, nutritionists and a variety of additional supporters. “We had several groups working together to pull it off,” says Earhart. Hundreds of volunteers assisted with Cookeville’s Farm Day, with Tennessee Technological University also offering support. “If it wasn’t for Tennessee Tech, we’d never be able to do what we’re doing,” says McCaslin. “They have been excellent partners.”
And partnerships are important when more than 40,000 students are participating in Farm Days each year. “It takes everyone in agriculture working together,” says Curtis.
Some teachers are even incorporating farm-friendly education into their lesson plans, using Agriculture in the Classroom to prepare students for Farm Day events. “Agriculture includes science, technology, math, language arts and reading,” says Curtis.
Many Farm Day coordinators and supporters are passionate about the effort because of the opportunity it gives, enabling them to educate children about a misunderstood industry. “You’d think everyone would know about agriculture in Tennessee, but it’s not so,” McCaslin says. “We don’t put these events on just for fun. We want people to know where things actually come from.”
Others simply want students to experience what life on a farm is truly like. “I think going out to a farm does something for the soul,” Holt says. “It’s almost an archaic lifestyle, as organic as you can get. It’s good for kids to see.”
With enthusiastic organizers, volunteers and supporters chipping in, Farm Days are taking place in several counties this spring. To learn more or to get involved, contact your local Farm Bureau agency.