For North Carolina farmers Erica and Justin Edwards, educating people about agriculture and all it provides – from food and fiber to career opportunities – starts with preschoolers and continues well into the young adult years.
Erica, president of the Duplin County Farm Bureau Women’s Committee, teaches third grade. Passionate about cultivating ag literate future consumers, Erica integrates agriculture into every lesson she can.
“Incorporating agriculture into the school curriculum is invaluable. Every aspect of our lives, regardless of our careers, is tied to agriculture,” she explained. “The children are amazed to learn how doctors have an appreciation for agriculture because gauze is made from cotton.”
Erica not only encourages the teachers she works with to bring agriculture into their lessons, in the previous district she worked in, she was a leading voice in the call for a county-wide STEAMA initiative, which requires teachers throughout the county to incorporate science, technology, arts, math and agriculture into at least one of their daily lessons.
“For example, if they were doing a word problem in math, they could include something about agriculture and maybe incorporate a unique ag fact into the problem,” Erica said.
To make her lessons more relatable and hands-on for the students, Erica each year has a raised bed garden in her classroom. “Whether it was addition, subtraction, multiplication, everything we do in math, we relate to the raised bed garden.”
Erica tries to impress upon her fellow educators how important it is that students can relate to what they’re learning; It helps ensure the lesson will stick with them for a long time, Erica emphasized.
A full-time farmer and Duplin County Farm Bureau president, Justin raises hogs and turkeys and grows corn, wheat, soybeans, cotton and sorghum. Before COVID-19, Justin brought the farm to Erica’s classroom as often as he could, with timely lessons on how crops are planted, tended to, harvested and transported. He’s even brought equipment to the school so the students could better grasp all that farming entails.
When schools transitioned to virtual platforms in the spring, Justin moved to videos, which allowed him to put even more of the farm in front of the kids. When the kids saw how clean and spacious the turkey houses are and how clean the pigs were, they were amazed. Many of the myths about animal confinement and cleanliness on farms were being busted right before their eyes.
In addition to introducing the students to the young tom turkeys and showing them what it’s like for pigs at their lunch time, Justin also got the kids involved via video in the corn harvest – from showing them the combine at work to taking them along with the grain truck to the grain elevator, he gave them a multi-dimensional perspective on agriculture that’s second only to actually being on the farm.
Because the kids were at home watching the videos, parents and siblings got a peek at farm life as well. Similarly, when the kids are in the classroom, they’re bringing what they learn about agriculture home. Whether they’re sharing a fun fact or correcting a misconception about agriculture, they’re talking to their families about what they’re seeing and hearing in the classroom, which puts them well on the path to being ag literate adults, a goal of Erica and Justin’s.
In their roles as Farm Bureau leaders, Erica and Justin encourage other farmers to share their stories with students of all ages. The several who have found they gained as much from the experience as the students.
Just as he does with Erica’s students, Justin shares the farm story with the kids who go to preschool with the couple’s children, Sadie, 5, and Oliver, 2.
He’s also involved with numerous FFA chapters. In working with high school students, Justin has been struck by many of them who do did not grow up in agriculture, but who are very interested in a farming or farming-related career. Erica ties that to the students’ exposure to local farmers, who show them agriculture runs deep and wide.
“If I get an agribusiness degree, I can go work for Farm Credit. Or if I specialize in poultry science, I can go work for Butterball,” Erica said.
Justin at times has even hired high school students who wanted to see what life on the farm is like.
“Educating today's youth with experiences in agriculture is vitally important. They need to see that agriculture goes full circle; it is far more than cows, plows and sows,” Justin said.
Eventually Justin and Erica would like to bring students to their farm throughout the year so they can see what life on a working farm is really like, which, based on the questions Erica has fielded over the years, is clearly very different from media portrayals or even students’ experience on agritourism farms.
Justin and Erica won first place in the national Young Farmers and Ranchers Achievement Award at the American Farm Bureau’s Annual Convention in 2019. As Achievement Award winners, the Edwardses received a new Ford truck, courtesy of Ford. Ford is generously sponsoring the 2021 national YF&R competitions, providing new Ford trucks to the winners of the Achievement Award, Discussion Meet and Excellence in Agriculture competitions.