Florida Agriculture in the Classroom celebrates 30 years

Florida Agriculture in the Classroom is celebrating its 30-year anniversary of teaching students that their food doesn’t just magically appear at Publix.

Through its curricula, workshops and other efforts, the non-profit organization is dedicated to educating teachers and students about the importance of the state’s multi-faceted agriculture industry by incorporating lessons about agriculture into subjects already being taught.

“We’ve really tried to make our materials relevant to classroom teachers who teach any subject at any grade level. We provide them with hands-on, interactive lessons for students in kindergarten through 12th grade that they can easily fold into what they’re teaching already. We want to help them teach a difficult concept even better,” said Lisa Gaskalla, executive director of Florida Agriculture in the Classroom.

“Over the years, we’ve tried to show general education teachers that agriculture can be a great teaching tool. It helps make lessons in reading, writing, math, science, social studies – lessons they’re teaching anyway – more easily understandable. For example, photosynthesis is a chemical reaction. It’s a great way to teach chemistry and one of our lessons in school garden curriculum Gardening for Grades has a simpler version for elementary students and a more complex version for high school students,” she said.

Agriculture in the Classroom was the idea of former USDA Secretary John Block back in the Reagan years. Because Americans were becoming so removed from the farm, Block asked states to create Agriculture in the Classroom programs to educate teachers and students in general education classrooms about agriculture by infusing agricultural concepts into reading, writing, science and social studies instruction. Florida agriculture industry leaders were among those who accepted the challenge and incorporated Florida Agriculture in the Classroom on Aug. 12, 1986.

The program operated under the umbrella of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services in the early years, developing educational materials and holding teacher workshops around the state.

In the mid-1990s, the Florida agriculture industry worked together with the help of FFVA’s Butch Calhoun to create the a specialty license plate known as the “Ag Tag,” one of the state’s first specialty plates. It wasn’t an easy job.

“It was a chore, but it was a fun chore,” said Calhoun. “After the session of 1995, I was at FFVA talking about what had happened and what we could work on for the next session. Charlie Matthews, who was our marketing director at the time, said, ‘Butch, we need an ag tag.’ And I said it was a great idea.”

Calhoun enlisted the help of any and all contacts he had.

“The requirements at that time were that you had to put $30,000 down to guarantee the tag would be purchased and you had to get 10,000 signatures. The deal I made with Ag in the Classroom was that they would work on getting the signatures and I would work on getting the money. And I would work on designing the tag and getting sponsors in the Legislature. Florida Farm Bureau helped by getting signatures from its county organizations.  Signatures weren’t a problem, but the money was. I wrote every sponsor we had – chemical companies, fertilizer companies – to get the funding and we still came up a few thousand short.  Thankfully, Farm Bureau lent us the balance and we were able to move the bill forward.”

The Ag Tag celebrates its 20-year anniversary this year. With every purchase of an Ag Tag, $20 goes to Ag in the Classroom to support its programs. It provided the steady source of funding the organization needed, and allowed it to hire its first full-time executive director in 1998.

Since then, FAITC continued to grow under Gaskalla, who was hired in 2003.

It began its elementary reading program Florida Agriculture Literacy Day in 2004 and began writing its own children’s books with the help of the FDACS’ Division of Marketing in 2007. In 2009, it launched its school garden program with the development of school garden curriculum Gardening for Grades in 2011 and Gardening for Nutrition in 2014. It also offers teachers $500 school garden mini-grants each school year thanks to funding it received from USDA and FDACS through the Specialty Crop Block Grant program.

“There were plenty of books about Florida gardening how-tos, but teachers didn’t really have a school garden curriculum with lessons that tie classroom instruction to the garden. With our school garden curricula and school garden grant money, I’d say we have easily quadrupled the number of teachers that we’ve reached,” Gaskalla said.

In addition to curricula, FAITC offers professional development workshops to teachers around the state, featuring lesson instruction in the morning followed by farm tours in the afternoon. Further enhancing its appeal to teachers, the organization hired former classroom teacher Becky Whitmer Sponholtz in 2013, who has worked to further improve the organization’s curriculum and teacher workshop offerings.

Looking toward the future, STEMming Up Gardening for Grades, a secondary school garden curriculum, will debut in 2017.

“In addition, we are working with Canadian fertilizer company Agrium on two programs,” Gaskalla said. “One is called Seed Survivor, which is two mobile learning labs that will visit Florida elementary schools from November through March and teach kids lessons about plant germination and growth using interactive games inside the trailer and planting activities outside.”

FAITC also will serve as a pilot test state for Journey 2050, an online gaming system designed for 7th through 12th grade students. “Students go online and play a game where they farm with families from three different countries,” Gaskalla said. “They’re actual farm families in Kenya, India and North America. It teaches them lessons about sustainability on the farm.” Gaskalla plans to present it to the Florida Association of Science Teachers in October.

Partnering with organizations with similar missions is important to FAITC as it tries to leverage its resources with other groups. It’s very involved with the National Agriculture in the Classroom Organization and AITC programs in other states, and it worked together with FDACS’ Farm to School program and the University of Florida/IFAS’ Family Nutrition Program to hold its first joint school garden workshop for teachers in June at Bok Tower Gardens in Lake Wales.

“We’re working hard to make sure our educational programs remain relevant to K-12 Florida teachers and students,” she said. “By doing so, they’re more likely to use our materials and learn about Florida agriculture at the same time.

It’s not all hard work and no play. Supporters can help Florida Agriculture in the Classroom celebrate its 30-year anniversary by joining its board of directors and others at a Farm-to-Fork dinner Nov. 3 at Sunny Acres Lodge in Polk City.

‘Boots, Barns and Books’ will feature Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ Chef  Paula , a special video of the organization’s history, a clay shoot and a buggy ride of the scenic location in Polk County. Learn more about the event here. http://faitc.org/30th/

Learn more about Florida Agriculture in the Classroom on its website here. www.AgTag.org

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