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Mikkel Pates, Forum Communications Co., Published November 20 2010

Minnesota high school ag teacher inspires state program

MORRIS, Minn. – The Minnesota State FFA on Nov. 1 issued a challenge to its chapters for the year: Get more active in teaching about agricultural literacy to younger students in your own schools and then take that message to the biggest towns and cities.

The challenge from this year’s FFA state officers grew from a successful program in Morris, Minn. Last June, Morris High School ag teacher Natasha Mortenson took a busload of 45 high school students into an urban Minneapolis school. The kids spent time in two inner-city schools, teaching kids in kindergarten through fifth grade about where their food comes from.

Mortenson says the program used resources in the Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s Ag in the Classroom program. The local program used its alumni leaders to raise more than $1,100 to pay for the bus ride. Mortenson worked with Al Withers from the state Ag Department to put together resources for other schools that want to do the same kind of thing.

“We wanted to teach the basics – beef and hogs, corn and soybeans and dairy,” she says. “We had them do activities, plant seeds, but also see live animals. We hauled in a livestock trailer with a beef heifer, a sheep, a goat and a rabbit as well.”

The students were able to encounter the animals in the school yard.

Among other things, the FFA members taught inner-city kids about how farm animals affect their lives in positive ways, she says.

“We made a point to have ‘market’ animals and not just baby animals,” she says.

Mortenson grew up on a corn and soybean farm in Benson, Minn., where she raised 4-H project animals. Her husband works on a hog and crop farm in the Morris area.

Early inspiration

In high school, Mortenson was inspired by ag education teacher Chuck Erickson.

“I discovered I wanted to be involved in shaping people’s lives through agriculture education,” she recalls.

She went on to the University of Minnesota in St. Paul and Minneapolis and emerged with her agricultural education degree in 2001. She did student teaching in Montevideo, Minn. There, ag teacher Leah Schwachtgen had an Ag in the Classroom program.

“I was so inspired by watching high school kids teach agriculture,” she recalls.

When she landed first job in Morris, Mortenson developed an alliance with fourth grade teacher Joan Donovan in 2003. Three years ago, Donovan shifted to teaching first grade, and Mortenson and her FFA student-educators shifted with her.

“We teach all of the first-graders once a month,” Mortenson says.

The project is connected to the National FFA’s Partners in Active Learning Support program.

“We started one on one, but now there’s three high school kids for every 10 elementary students,” she says.

The education focuses on key products grown in the region – dairy, pork, corn or soybeans.

“On dairy, we might show them how to milk using rubber gloves with holes in it,” Mortenson says. “We’ll teach them about dairy products or what we feed cattle. Every time, it’s something different. Sometimes, there’s a snack that goes with it.”

With first-graders, the monthly sessions run about 45 minutes.

“That’s a perfect amount of time to work with first-graders,” she says.

Maintaining ties to ag

The program scripts everything out, so the teaching students know what they must cover. FFA leaders have taken responsibility for coordinating the activity.

Mortenson is quick to acknowledge that Ag in the Classroom is not a new topic. It has been done at many levels around the state, but the need is greater now than ever.

“We need to teach students – especially those far-removed from the farm,” she says. She says there are many advocacy groups that are opposed to animal agriculture and other aspects of conventional farming.

“Thirty years ago, most people knew somebody on the farm,” she says. “Now there’s so much detachment that people don’t understand it at all.”

She says farmers themselves often don’t have the time to do that kind of education, so it’s a good investment for ag companies and groups to underwrite FFA groups doing that kind of education.

She says this kind of program also is important for the student ag leaders. “I haven’t seen as much growth in my students from anything else,” she says. It’s not just good for the young kids, but also good for the FFA leaders, too.

She says the message is that “farmers are doing their best to provide a wholesome food supply” and that that message could be important as policy makers come up with laws and regulations.

“Somebody needs to inform people how the system works so they can make educated decisions, not emotional ones.”

Mikkel Pates writes for AgWeek