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Outdoor Classroom ideas focus on ag education

Planning continues to move forward on the agricultural aspect of the Park Rapids Schools’ Outdoor Classroom initiative.  A planning session convened last week with Keith Olander, who directs agricultural-related studies at Central Lakes College, facilitating and Al Withers, program director of Minnesota Agriculture in the Classroom, adding insights.  

“Try to think of a world without farmers,” Olander said.  Farming is the largest human endeavor on earth, using more than 38 percent of ice-free land, the audience learned from a video. The world’s population is expected to grow by 35 percent by 2050. Crop production will need to double. And with that, comes clearing of habitat and an accelerated loss of biodiversity.  “Kids need a literacy program,” Withers said of insights into agronomy. “We should give them a broad swath of information on opportunities.”  

Minnesota’s agricultural sector is known world-wide for its high quality source of food for local communities and global partners alike, Withers pointed out.  But less than 2 percent of the population is involved in production agriculture and most people are two or three generations removed from a farm, leading to a low level of agricultural literacy.  The state’s agriculture covers 27 million acres, providing $75 billion to the state’s economy.  “Agriculture is a huge part of this area’s economy,” Dave Collins, director of the Hubbard County Regional Economic Development Commission, pointed out.  Audience members included Extension agent Sally Shearer, who promotes sustainability. Agronomist William Mack pointed out a “disconnect with society” exists on ag information.

“It’s a part of our history and part of our future.”  Former physician and Master Gardener Maurice Spangler cited health concerns often linked to poor eating habits – obesity and diabetes.  “More kids need to experience agriculture first hand,” school board chair Sherry Safratowich said.  “And agriculture is tasty,” chef Joel London added with a grin.  

The discussion focused not only on food production, but career opportunities, Olander noting students graduating with a two-year degree now earn 13 percent more than those with a four-year diploma.  The number of ag teachers in schools is on the rise, Olander said of 192 agriculture programs in the state.  Withers said when he took on the role of introducing ag in the classroom 30 years ago, he was not a “plows, sows and cows” type of guy. His background had been behind a microphone in radio. He inherited a 54-member task force.  He would help to draft the National Agricultural Literacy Outcomes for use in schools.  “Now I’m seeing ag as it should be,” he said, citing the Farm to School initiative, healthy eating and sustainability. “We have to think 10 years out,” he said of food systems integration, embedding agriculture, food and natural resources in the classroom.

 “The Minnesota Agriculture in the Classroom program “seeks to improve student achievement by applying authentic agricultural examples to teach core curriculum concepts in science, social studies, language arts, math and nutrition,” Withers explains in a brochure.  Olander recommended that the district hire a manager for the gardens and high tunnel greenhouses next year. And next fall, post for an agriculture education system integration specialist, to begin in July 2017.  But Park Rapids Schools Superintendent Lance Bagstad indicated “logistics” for this must be addressed.  

He advocates “looking 10 years down the road, starting small and working the way up through a visioning process.  “A full-fledged outdoor classroom has a ways to go,” he said Monday. “We will continue to move forward.”