Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Tell your story, part...

Here’s a topic I’ve discussed many times in this column. In the face of a strongly biased major media, it’s very hard to over-emphasize the need for farmers and ranchers to counter the prevailing “green,” anti-agriculture narrative.

A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to tell my story to more than 100 fifth and sixth graders from the Kimball and Harrisburg elementary schools. About 15 of the kids were from farming or ranching families; the rest were town kids. I was asked to talk both about my ranching activities and the prairie ecosystem. How would you tell 10, 11, and 12 year-olds about your ag operation? It’s a fun question to think about. Here’s how I did it.

Members of the Kimball FFA Chapter talk to fifth and sixth graders at the Historic Brookside Farm just north of Kimball, Neb.
The event was the Kimball-Banner County Farm Bureau’s annual Ag Day, held at  Brookside Farm just north of Kimball. The farm is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is, according to the Nebraska State Historical Society, “a rare, well preserved collection of buildings and structures which reflect changes in agriculture from timber claim to twentieth century technology and small scale farm diversification.”

Ag Day at Brookside Farm begins with a presentation on the history of agriculture in the U.S. in general and at Brookside farm in particular. Then the kids break into groups of 10-12 and visit a dozen stations where local farmers, ranchers, and other ag professionals discuss and demonstrate specific facets of production agriculture. Topics include local and regional crop production, agricultural products, farm safety, ecology, livestock production and animal husbandry, and farm- and rangeland ecosystems. Other stations include livestock and farm and ranch equipment.

I started off with a mistake you’ll want to try to avoid in such a situation. I was late. Caring for sick calves, tagging a newborn, and feeding a bottle calf took longer than I anticipated. It was a good excuse, but I was still late. I was able to work my explanation for tardiness into my introductory remarks though.

My topic was rangeland ecosystems. I came armed with grass and plant specimens freshly collected from the ranch, including warm and cool season grasses, wildflowers, shrubs, and succulents.

My talk was generalized and designed for youngsters, but I covered some important topics. Fifth and sixth graders are naturally bright and curious, however, they’re not very impressed with canned lectures. So I mixed my explanations of the shortgrass prairie ecosystem with fun facts and thought provoking questions.

While talking about the differences between grasses and other plants, I asked each group whether they thought corn and wheat were grasses or one of the other plant types. Each group had at least a couple of kids who guessed correctly.

And speaking of the differences between grasses and crops, I said, if a farmer raises crops, what does a rancher raise? Cattle, of course was the most common reply. This setup question allowed me to explain that while I do raise cattle, my real crop is grass, which the cattle harvest and turn into beef.

While speaking of beef, I was able to talk about the realities of food production, including the fact that to be consumed for food, animals have to be slaughtered. Kids are no dummies, and by age 10 they know that fact. But kids are very quick to pick up on evasive or disingenuous explanations (more often called fertilizer, more or less), and I think it’s best to be scrupulously honest when talking about what we do.

Another topic I covered was the enormous size of our country, 3.8 million square miles, and that less than half, about 1.5 million square miles, is used for farming and ranching. The land area of towns and cities for all 312 million Americans, at roughly 94,000 square miles, is less than three percent of the total.

The kids had good guesses about the percentage of ag producers in the country, somewhere between 1-2 percent. They were bemused to find that in Nebraska, cattle outnumber people by roughly 6-1.

They were also fascinated by the notion that if every person in the country was  somehow placed in the Panhandle and distributed evenly, each would have 775 square feet of space.

The kids asked a lot of good questions, a testament to their curiosity as well as the education they are receiving. It was a beautiful, calm, sunny day, and all in all a wonderful experience.

Telling our story – personalizing it and making it real – is important to the future of agriculture in America. If you get the chance, to tell your story, formally or informally, don’t pass it up. In fact, it’s not a bad idea to get out and look for the opportunity.

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