History of Agriculture in the Classroom
Throughout much of the history of the United States, agriculture and education have been closely related. During the decades when most Americans lived on farms or in small towns, students often did farm chores before and after school. Indeed, the school year was determined by planting, cultivating, and harvesting schedules. Old school books are full of agricultural references and examples because farming and farm animals were a familiar part of nearly every child's life.
In the 1920s, '30s and '40s, the farm population began to shrink and agricultural emphasis decreased in school books and educational materials. Educators focused on agriculture as an occupational specialty, rather than an integral part of every student's life. Agriculture education was mainly offered to those few students wanting to make a career of agriculture.
During this period, a small nucleus of educators and others persistently pushed for more agriculture in education. They recognized the interlocking role of farming, food, and fiber production with environmental quality topics like maintaining a clean water supply and preserving and improving forests and wildlife habitat. They kept education in agriculture and the environment alive during a period when interest by the public as a whole was decreasing.
During the 1960s and '70s, educators began to realize the need for quality materials. Many excellent films, books, and classroom aids were financed and produced by businesses, foundations, nonprofit groups, and associations, as well as state and federal agencies. There was, however, little coordination of effort or exchange of ideas among the groups and no central point for national coordination.
In 1981the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) invited representatives of agricultural groups and educators came to a meeting in Washington, D.C. to discuss agricultural literacy. A national task force was selected from this group. Representation came from agriculture, business, education, and governmental agencies, some of whom were already conducting educational programs in agriculture.
This task force recommended that the USDA be the coordinator for national agricultural classroom literacy and that it sponsor regional meetings to help states organize their own programs. They also urged the department to encourage the support of other national groups. Since that time, significant progress has been made through these partnerships of agriculture, business, education, government and dedicated volunteers.
Each state organization addresses agriculture education in a way best suited to its own needs. In some cases, an all-volunteer network is responsible for teacher education and materials distribution. States have formed educational nonprofit organizations which have the benefit of a tax-deductible status. In some states leadership is provided through the departments of education, agriculture or other government agencies; in other states through agriculture organizations or commodity groups; some through universities or colleges; and in some cases through the dedicated efforts of one or two individuals.
Some state organizations have employed full and/or part-time persons to support Agriculture in the Classroom. A few states have reassigned government agency personnel to lead the AITC efforts. There is no one best method to administer Agriculture in the Classroom but the combined efforts of volunteers and professional staff are vital ingredients for success.
AITC has come a long way! Once perceived as ‘farmer in the classroom' with resources such as coloring books and fact sheets, today's network of state programs has successfully become a key player in providing quality classroom resources and in the delivery of teacher professional development. In most states, key resources align with state academic standards and pre- and in-service programs have become an invaluable tool in helping teachers become more comfortable with the subject of agriculture.
Regardless of the structure, Agriculture in the Classroom has advanced because of a cooperative spirit among the participants. There is an AITC presence in every state and territory. Representatives from Canada have attended many USDA sponsored AITC national conferences and have now hosted two national conferences in Canada. Requests for information about Ag in the Classroom come from many countries around the world and from other organizations wanting to learn how to deliver their programs with equal success.
The strength of Agriculture in the Classroom comes from its grassroots organization and the fact that educators are very much a part of the movement. Giant strides have been made since 1981. Agriculture in the Classroom is regarded as a refreshing and flexible educational program designed to supplement and enhance the teacher's existing curriculum.
Going forward there is great potential and opportunity for the program. Today's teacher is seeking out relationships that bring them closer to their food source. They want to become more knowledgeable on both the personal and professional level. They want to ‘know the farmer,’ promote healthy eating, and better understand global sustainability and environmental stewardship. AITC programs stand ready to help them become more comfortable delivering agriculture in their classroom setting and beyond.