STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education is taught to students around the world. The STEM approach is designed to build student interest in these subjects at an early age to help increase interest in young people to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math to combat a projected shortage in those fields. Farming should be part of the conversation, because much of agriculture touches on science, technology, engineering and math. Plus, agriculture is facing a shortage of skilled workers throughout the food chain.
Farmers do more than just provide an opportunity for people to eat three meals a day. They also grow crops used for making other products, including clothes, toothpaste and even pharmaceuticals. Yet there is a gap in consumer understanding of food production. Farmers can proactively close that gap by talking to consumers about the agriculture industry to gain a better understanding of what farmers do on a daily basis to produce healthy food. Farmers are hopeful that a better informed public will help secure a better future for the next generation on the farm.
Meanwhile, farmers have to prioritize agriculture education as a critical element in working to meet the demands of a changing world. It has been projected that by 2050 the global population will balloon to 9.6 billion – a lot of people to feed. Farmers will need to become even more efficient, as they strive to grow more food on existing land. Biotechnology has allowed us to be more efficient in producing crops, but confusion among consumers about genetically modified organisms (GMOs), is presenting obstacles to advancing its use. The farming community needs to inform consumers about the many benefits of GMOs and their unprecedented safety record.
Pennsylvania Farm Bureau has long recognized the need to connect the general public with agriculture. In fact, it was 30 years ago that PFB formed the Pennsylvania Friends of Agriculture Foundation (PFAF), with a focus on promoting sound science and agriculture education. PFAF teaches the public about farming, nutrition, the environment and other related subjects, while funding scholarships, promoting career opportunities, training teachers and creating new educational programs.
One of Farm Bureau’s strongest programs administered through the nonprofit foundation is the Mobile Agriculture Education Science Lab program. The program offers a classroom on wheels that brings agriculture-based science lessons to public and private schools across Pennsylvania. The lab visits are having a measurable impact. This fall, the Ag Lab program will celebrate its millionth student visitor! The labs are geared for students in kindergarten through eighth grade to gain hands-on experience with various science experiments. They are focused on numerous initiatives including: Pennsylvania’s primary farm commodities, the environment, biotechnology, food and fiber and agriculture-related careers. Even if students do not become farmers or work in the industry, they will gain knowledge to make informed decisions about agriculture. The six Ag Labs have been educating students from rural, suburban and urban areas.
In addition, the foundation hosts an Educator’s Ag Institute each summer. Pre-K to 12th grade teachers acquire a week’s worth of knowledge through classroom sessions and farm tours. Some topics include food science, watersheds, research and sustainability. Every institute includes a tour of agriculture facilities at Penn State University, along with tours on various local farms. Regardless of an educator’s familiarity with agriculture, they participate in the conference to learn about the entire food chain and how to pass relevant information onto students.
PFAF not only engages instructors during Ag Institute and students during Ag Lab sessions, but also informs consumers about farming practices and farm-to-table concepts at public events, such as the Pennsylvania Farm Show and at county fairs.
With a growing public interest in learning how farmers produce food, treat animals and care about the environment, it is more important than ever for farmers to directly engage in conversations with those who buy food, fuel and fiber products. But the responsibility of informing and educating the public should not fall solely on the shoulders of farm families.
If we truly want to earn an “A” for Agriculture, people from all aspects of food production, research, education, distribution, marketing and sales need to become more involved in telling the story of our country’s amazing food system.