HARRISONBURG, Va. — “How do you become a farmer?”
That was one of the first questions posed to Virginia Commissioner of Agriculture Matt Lohr, who was a part of the “Ask a Farmer” station at W.H. Keister Elementary School’s “Farming in the City” educational event recently. The innocent first grader who raised the question had no idea that she had gone directly to the heart of the matter, as the event attempted to help students understand how food gets to their plates.
Lohr, to his credit, never missed a beat before explaining to the students that while many farmers are born into farming families, anyone can choose to be a farmer. “For many of these kids this is their first experience with agriculture,” Lohr said prior to students’ arrival.
“My boys see this on a daily basis, but other kids don’t get that exposure,” said event creator Lauren Arbogast, who raises beef cattle, poultry and crops with her husband and also teaches preschool special education at Keister.
Arbogast previously took her students to a similar event in another county, but decided that she could organize her own event without spending her allotted transportation budget. “She is so passionate about farming,” said Patti Studwell, an instructional coach at Keister who assisted Arbogast with the event.
“Community support has been overwhelmingly positive,” Arbogast said of the new venture.
Planning began a year in advance, and with the support of the school’s administrators, Arbogast began contacting members of the farming community and applied for grants.
Grant money from the Virginia Council on Economic Education and the Harrisonburg Education Foundation allowed Arbogast to open the event to the entire school, approximately 750 students from pre-K through fourth grade. The VCEE grant provided each student with a book titled “How did that get in my lunchbox?” and Rockingham County Farm Bureau purchased the accompanying educational guide for all 44 of the school’s classes. The Harrisonburg Education Foundation grant covered two books; “Oh Say Can You Seed: All About Flowering Plants” for pre-K through second grade and “Clarabelle: Making Milk and so much More” for third and fourth graders.
Arbogast said her goal was to tailor the event to each grade’s classroom curriculum and the Virginia Standards of Learning. Teachers were given sample lesson plans and lists of Internet resources that were grade-specific to help integrate what the students saw at the event into the classroom.
“There is only so much that you can learn from a worksheet. I want them to get out and get their hands dirty,” Arbogast said, and students had plenty of opportunities to do exactly that. FFA members from nearby Broadway High School helped each student plant their own green bean seed. Rockingham County 4-H members displayed goats, lambs, a Holstein calf, piglets, and miniature horses and answered a wide variety of questions.
Students also had the chance to hold newly hatched chicks, try their hand at milking a wooden cow, climb into a tractor, and observe a horseshoeing demonstration by Lauren Arbogast’s brother-in-law, Brent Arbogast.
Kettle corn was popped fresh at a “farmers market” themed station so that every student could have a bag to snack on, and local ice cream vendor Smiley’s served everyone a dip of their old fashioned freezer-cranked vanilla.
The farm-to-table theme carried over into the school’s lunch menu for the day with locally produced hamburgers, coleslaw, strawberries, and carrots. The school also has a garden where students grow vegetables, herbs, and flowers. Principal Anne Lintner said that produce from the garden is used in the school cafeteria when quantities permit, and individual teachers use the garden and its crops for lessons.
“This is the kind of thing that children learn from,” Lintner added.
In the future organizers hope to expand the program to all students in Harrisonburg City Public Schools, but for this year, Keister’s event was a good test pilot. Before the event was even over, Arbogast was already looking for feedback from teachers and volunteers about how to improve the experience for next year.