The saying goes that, if you eat, you’re involved in agriculture. 

But every year, there are fewer people actively involved in agricultural production, and another generation loses a bit more of it’s connection to the land.

We might not recognize it here — where its common to live down the road from someone raising a few chickens or folks who grow their own vegetables in the backyard. My sister, however, works in Nashville. As the city’s population continues to swell, you’d be hard pressed to find someone actually “from” Nashville, and pretty lucky if you run into a native Tennessean. Many of her coworkers came to Music City from Chicago, New York, California. And they’re a bit mystified by their country neighbors.

They have only a basic understanding of how their food gets from a farm to their local store. 

That’s why programs like the annual Bill Wheeler Ag in the Classroom are so important. Last week, about 550 third-grade students from across the county visited the UT Plateau Research and Education Center off Hwy. 70 N. They spent their day learning about chickens, swine and sheep. They learned about dairy cattle — and that they have to be milked twice a day, every day, with no vacations or holidays — and beef cattle. In 2017, Tennessee had more than 1.8 million cattle and calves. It was 12th in the United States for beef cows and 16th for total cattle. 

They learned about crops, like soybeans. This is Tennessee’s top row crop. In 2017, farmers harvested a record 50 bushels per acre across almost 1.7 million acres. They also learned about apples and the research conducted right in Cumberland County to develop new apple varieties. 

They learned about wildlife that share farmland as their habitat. They learned about bees that help pollinate the crops we rely on for food. And they learned about the soil that makes it possible to grow crops and feed livestock. 

I didn’t grow up on a farm, but my grandfather has farmed and bred horses my entire life. I’ve helped feed horses, hoe a garden and bottle feed a baby colt. I’ve shoveled stalls and helped haul hay.

Some of it was hard work. Really, really hard work. 

But I made some great memories on that farm and I learned so much. 

Most of the kids visiting the farm last week won’t grow up to be farmers. They may never raise a market lamb in the 4-H program. They might find they haven’t the time to plant and tend a full-scale family garden.

They may take up some small-scale farm production, like a few hens in the backyard providing their family with fresh eggs, or a few tomato plants to slice up during the summer. 

And they’ll know the work and effort that goes into bringing the food on their plate to market, and the hazards and conditions that had to be overcome for a successful harvest. 

The Ag in the Classroom program is now in its 27th year, thanks to the dedication and support of the Farm Bureau Women, about 100 volunteers and the cooperation of the UT Plateau Research and Education Center and the Cumberland County School System. 

We’re fortunate. You won’t find a program like this in every school system. But every child can benefit from visiting a farm and talking with a farmer about what they do and why it’s important. 

Heather Mullinix is editor of the Crossville Chronicle. She covers schools and education in Cumberland County. She may be reached at hmullinix@crossville-chronicle.com.

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