"Old McDonald had a farm, E-I-E-I-O. And on that farm he had some cows, chicks, pigs, ducks,..."
That's how I started learning about farming when I was a child. I soon learned that not all farms had cows and all the other animals. I was disappointed but understood that farms can still be farms with only one or a few kinds of animals. My farm education was enhanced by regular visits to my uncle's, formerly my grandfather's farm, and with daily summer walks down the road to see the neighbor farmer's baby pigs. I also visited friends who lived on a farm and got squirted with hot milk right out of the source. Building forts with hay bales and running through cow pastures trying to avoid the cow pies all added to my growing knowledge of farming. It was a gradual education filled with warm summer days and scheduling holiday meals around milking time.
As years went by, I learned that some farms didn't have any animals at all, other than maybe a dog or a cat. They grew crops. Things like peas and grains that were processed in large plants that we drove by as we went into a nearby city for events there. As a teen-ager, my friends and I always took really deep breaths as we drove by the whiskey distillery, where we knew the local grains had been delivered.
I learned about plants by working in the flower garden with my mother. She had a really green thumb and loved plants and working the soil. I don't think she really wanted to ever leave the farm where she was raised. The flowers, a tomato plant and a few rows of lettuce kept her tied to her roots.
All of this came back to me, as I participated in the Annual Agricultural Literacy events at area schools. In the two classes where I read, one second grader said his family had chickens, one little girl admitted to having bunnies and two children lived near the woods. That was the extent of the farming experience for about 30 children in the rural area where I live.
How, I asked myself, are these children and all the others in New York State going to learn about the source of their food and how it is produced? In this day of electronic technology which children are exposed to from almost the moment of their birth, do they even know about Old McDonald?
Luckily there are signs of hope. Schools teachers are willing to invite volunteers into their classrooms for special activities related to farming and agriculture. The recent Agricultural Literacy events around the state are evidence of that. While interacting with the children, it was apparent that they were very open to learning about how their food is produced. It was obvious that school trips to farms and orchards had paid off. The children remembered what they had learned and seen and were quite happy to share what they had experienced. Reading and stories about agricultural activities and production helped to reinforce that learning.
Teachers around the state have also been participating in training sessions on how to use the Food, Land and People curriculum that has been developed to incorporate agriculture into the everyday lessons on math, literature, science, and the arts. The curriculum, designed for all ages and grades, blends easily into the state required teachings and comes with lesson plans, activities, and teaching aids. Information on the trainings is available for interested teachers and schools from www.agclassroom.org/ny/programs
There are other ways for children to learn about agriculture besides going to school. 4-H has been teaching children about farming and other subjects for over 50 years. Children do not have to live on a farm to participate and, in many cases, do not even have to own an animal. There are general agricultural activities and specific ones, such as dairy, beef, horses, sheep, goats, poultry, rabbits, and, in certain areas, llamas and alpacas. Information on 4-H activities is available from the local 4-H program in the Cornell Cooperative Extension office.
Parents can encourage children to learn about agriculture by taking their children to area agricultural activities like the County Fair. There farms and 4-Hers demonstrate the results of their activities by having their products and animals exhibited and judged by experts. Children can go to the barns and watch animals being groomed for showing and watch the animals being judged. They may see animals being fed and dairy cows being milked. They may even learn to move quickly if they see an animal raise its tail!
Besides County Fairs, many County Farm Bureaus may hold A Day on the Farm or Open Farms where families can tour the farm and see how it operates. They can ask questions, see demonstrations and participate in activities that are scheduled. They may be able to sample products that are produced on the farm.
Farmers' markets are also a place that children can learn about their food and how it is produced. There the farmers are willing to talk with and answer questions about how they grow and harvest the food they have to sell. Children have an opportunity to see food that is fresh, touch and smell it, and sometimes, even taste it.
So, while most children in New York no longer live on a farm, they still have plenty of opportunities to learn about farming and agriculture. If agricultural organizations, schools and teachers, youth organizations, and parents work together, children can experience agriculture in a variety of ways. So, Old McDonald may not be needed anymore, because experience is really the best teacher.
Jo Ellen Saumier of Chateaugay, N.Y., is the New York Farm Bureau's District 7 promotion and education chair.