By Clinton Gill
The University of Tennessee's Plateau Research & Education Center was abuzz on Thursday, Sept. 19 with virtually every third grade student in Cumberland County. This was the 21st year for the Bill Wheeler Ag-In-The Classroom Day, sponsored by Farm Bureau Insurance. Plateau Center Director Walt Hitch rolled out the proverbial grass carpet, providing teaching areas complete with chairs, tables and tents to help educate local elementary school children on agricultural subjects.
This year, there were 14 centers for short classes taught by experts in their perspective fields. The classes and experts are listed as follows: Swine – Greg Upchurch; Sheep – Katie Hardt; Livestock Working and Handling – Russell Hayes; Farm Machinery – Danny Smith; Poultry – Hillary Hayes; Beef Cattle – Wendell Wilson; Dairy Cattle – Danny Kemmer; Field Crops – Roger Thackston; Forestry – Charles Daugherty; Environment – Eddie Clark; Wildlife – Casey Mullen; Soils – Phillip Dixon; Fruits and Vegetables – Joel Green and Jim Hamby; and 4-H, presented by Taunee Whittenbarger.
More than 600 of Cumberland County's third graders spent the day touring the UT farm. It was a unique opportunity that most Americans don't get to experience anymore. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, there are more than 313 million people living in the United States. Of that population, less than one percent claim farming as an occupation. The number of farms in the U.S. stands at about 2.2 million. The number of farms in the U.S. peaked at 6.8 million in 1935, a time when the population was just over 127 million citizens. Farming in the United States is a dwindling occupation. In fact, about 60 percent of farmers are 55 years old, or older. Initiatives like the Ag-In-The Classroom Day are crucial to preserving an American institution.
"A lot of these kids have no idea where milk comes from. They think it comes from a super market," said Farm Bureau Agent Randy Brown.
Dillon Brown, a student from North Cumberland Elementary was excited about the field trip. "I learned a lot about crops, so now I can help my family in the garden," Dillon said.
It took more than 70 volunteers working to ensure the day ran smoothly. County Mayor Kenneth Carey, Jr. came out to help with the event.
"I think it's a wonderful event to educate the youth of the county. It's a good opportunity for them to learn where their food comes from. We really appreciate the University of Tennessee for hosting the event and Farm Bureau for sponsoring it," said Carey.
State Representative Cameron Sexton was also on hand.
The event is named in honor of Bill Wheeler, who started the program 21 years ago. Wheeler was an ardent supporter of agriculture education for young people.