Kids and Crops: The Beneficial Partnership Between Local Extension Offices and Public Schools
UF/IFAS Extension works very closely with the local school systems and provides educational programming on a wide spectrum of topics including crop science, embryology, nutrition, livestock, school gardens, etc. Extension Agents work directly with teachers to enhance their curriculum and encourage/coordinate field trips so that the kids can see commercial farms in operation. Some of the local school programs that the Agriculture Agent is spearheading in both Flagler and Putnam Counties are summarized below.
Classroom Potato Projects
In 2020, we introduced the 4-H Crop Citizens Science Potato Project to classes at Indian Trails Middle School and Belle Terre Elementary in Flagler County and Middleton Burney Elementary School in Putnam County. In Flagler County, we have been very intentional about working with schools on the east side of the County to ensure the youth are properly educated on crops grown on the west side of the County. Most of the kids were not aware that Flagler County grows nearly 3000 acres of potatoes. As part of the curriculum, Extension provides seeds, pots, soil, fertilizer and a thorough educational program to get the kids rooted in our local crop. Each classroom planted 20 potato seeds – 5 pots in 4 different fertilizer treatment groups. What better teaching techniques than bringing in plants that are already in the maturation stage and processed potatoes…the potato chips were definitely a welcomed teaching aid!
The goal is not only to educate the youth on the growth cycle from seed to harvest, but also to highlight advanced technologies used in the field by researchers. We are teaching the kids how to measure nitrogen concentrations in plant tissue using petiole sap meters and special software that can link images of leaf color with nitrogen. The younger generation is very
comfortable with advanced technologies that can assist farmers with their crops such as specialized apps, multi-spectral images taken with drones, field screening tools, and automated soil moisture sensors. Though most of them lack the multi-generational experience of growing crops, they are comfortable with learning how to use advanced technologies. It is absolutely essential to get the youth involved in agriculture at a young age in order to sustain our local agricultural industry.
Field Trips to the Farm
February was also a busy month for field trips to the UF/IFAS Hastings Agricultural Extension Center. Ms. Alexis Tilton brought out her Palatka High School students for a field trip on February 21st and transportation costs were covered through the Putnam County Farm to School Program. Ms. Diaz and Ms. Colindres from Indian Trails Middle School organized their own transportation and brought their kids out the farm on February 25th. The kids were fascinated as they walked through large field plots planted in potato, cabbage, brussels sprouts, broccoli and artichokes. They learned a little about crop science and physiology, but mostly enjoyed harvesting their own cabbage, broccoli and brussels sprout stalks. Only a couple kids were able to identify the artichoke crop, despite the many artichoke heads on the large spiny plant. They were all surprised to see that the brussels grew on a tall stalk and had to be plucked off one by one. UF/IFAS Extension believes that planting knowledge is just as important as the hands-on learning experiences with growing and harvesting crops.
Farm to School Program
Dr. Mussoline has also partnered with Todd Crowley, Putnam County Farm to School Coordinator, over the last two years to bring local produce into the school lunchroom. One very successful program, Taste the Sweet Tater, involves bringing “young” farmers (i.e. Brett and Lane Singleton who are now 14 and 16 yrs old) to the classrooms so they can educate their peers on how they grow sweet potatoes for commercial production. Todd purchases their produce and prepares taste testing samples in the cafeteria for all the kids to try. The educational component and interaction with real farmers encourages the kids to try vegetables such as sweet potatoes for the first time. Our next Taste the Sweet Tater Event will be at Middleton Burney Elementary School on March 12, 2020. Since Flagler County does not have an assigned Farm to School Coordinator, the Agent has directly partnered with the Flagler County Food Service Director, Angie Bush, to obtain locally-grown produce for Flagler County Schools. They worked cooperatively to obtain an award for $10,000 from the FDACS Florida Farm to School Sponsor Program.
Through their partnership with Extension they are able to purchase produce from local farmers directly and serve them as part of the school lunches throughout the County. Purple sweet potatoes were a big hit in the month of January, and local cabbage and potatoes will be on the menu in the coming months.
The author is employed by UF/IFAS Extension – An Equal Opportunity Institution.