She thought, “If I could write a children’s book describing pasture to plate for the beef industry - write it at a very elementary student level - that might be one way to not only interest students but also provide factual information for teachers.”
So she did. “Where Beef Comes From” hit the shelves in the spring of 2010 after feedback from teachers and industry experts and approval from the Ministry of Education.
“Teachers value the information. Students are very interested,” said Grant, who’s printed 3,000 books so far. The Ministry of Agriculture sent her book to each elementary school in Saskatchewan.
During Canadian Agriculture Literacy Week, Saskatchewan Agriculture in the Classroom (AITC) featured Grant’s book. AITC is a non profit charity that works with teachers to help kids understand farming and why it’s important. But teaching agriculture doesn’t mean explaining Old MacDonald’s farm - it’s much more than that. Through experiments, DVDs, games and lesson plans, over 300 free AITC resources teach students about things like soil erosion, seed germination, how bees make honey, trading commodities, writing business plans, and different byproducts of agriculture like clothes, cosmetics, and medicines.
James Perkins was a teacher before becoming Saskatchewan AITC interim executive director, and he says he’s always made a point to teach students about gardening. Like Grant, Perkins noticed a growing disconnect between kids and food production.
“When I talk to young people now, very few people have any connection whatsoever to agriculture to understand how food is produced,” he said.
Perkins says Saskatchewan schools don’t have adequate agriculture education and he dreams for agriculture to be throughout the K-12 curriculum. He thinks curriculum in every grade can draw upon agriculture to teach concepts.
According to Perkins, Grade 1’s living things unit can teach students about farm animals and Grade 3’s plant unit can teach students about grains, pulses and vegetables. In Grade 4 social studies students can learn about Saskatchewan’s agricultural history, and in Grade 6 health students can learn about food nutrition. In high school, through chemistry, biology, and social studies, the focus can be on environmental sustainability, bio-resource management, world supply and demand, marketing and career exploration.
“If we address agriculture though the curriculum and through different perspectives and disciplines each year, then we will achieve our goal,” Perkins said.
Tim Caleval, executive director of student achievements and supports in the education ministry, says it’s up to individual teachers to decide what resources they use to support the curriculum they’re teaching. But Perkins worries teachers don’t understand agriculture well, so they choose not to teach it.
“If only one in 43 Canadians have direct contact to agriculture, how many of those are teachers? If I don’t have a mining background, am I going to talk about diamond mines? Probably not,” he said.
However, there are teachers using AITC resources. It shipped approximately 4,000 sets to teachers in 2011, and about 1,500 materials were downloaded online. Through its various programs in 2011, about 1,000 teachers and 10,800 students had contact with Saskatchewan AITC. But that’s still only 6.5 per cent of the total number of students in the province.
Terri Jackson was one of those teachers. She teaches grades 1 and 2 at the Mayfair Community School in Saskatoon, and she’s part of the Little Green Thumbs program through AITC. In her classroom, with the help of a grow light and exhaust fan provided by AITC, her students plant vegetables in the middle of the winter. According to Jackson, her gardening lessons tie into science, math, social studies, health and English.
She focuses on gardening to teach students about where food comes from. According to Perkins, gardening is more comfortable for many teachers because it’s more familiar.
“I would do a lot of brushing up on things if I were to teach agriculture, but you start to learn as a teacher what resources are available to you and you draw upon those resources when you’re placed into a new situation,” Jackson said.
She encourages other teachers to use AITC resources and teach students about growing food.
When her students planted cucumber seeds, Jackson was shocked they thought they were growing pickles.
“They didn’t know what a pickle was – that a pickle was a cucumber once,” she said.
Perkins had similar experiences when he was a teacher.
“Kids don’t know potatoes grow in the ground, or how a carrot grows or just some of those common sense things a generation ago everyone knew. It’s been lost,” he said.
So AITC works with the Ministry of Education to ensure students understand where food comes from.
“It’s incredibly important people know where they get their food from,” said Caleval. “It’s not like we’re planning on making agriculture education something that’s mandatory.”
He adds that agriculture education is already supported through curriculum resources and elective courses through the practical and applied arts program. One of those elective courses is Agriculture Studies 30, but it’s not a common class. In fact, only five high schools offered it in the 2010-11 school year.
“The problem we’re facing is we have a lot of people who are graduating school and they’ve never had direct contact with agriculture,” said Perkins.
Until the education system integrates agriculture into the curriculum more, AITC and producers like Grant will continue to take education into their own hands to ensure kids know that milk just doesn’t come from a carton and flour doesn’t come from the store.
“Unless people know where their food comes from, they lose track of what’s important in society. They start believing there needs to be no attention paid to the resources that provide us food. A country that travels very far down that path is headed for destruction,” Grant said.
Perkins agrees, “A large portion of the world doesn’t necessarily have the food opportunities we have. We need to know where our food comes from. We need to value it. We need to appreciate it. And we need to decide it’s something that’s important to our every day lives.”