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FOX LAKE

Most folks easily recognize Wisconsin as the nation's top cheese producer.

Students attending School for AGriculture and Environmental Studies (SAGES) in Fox Lake can rattle off at least a dozen commodities in which the Badger state ranks No. 1 including cranberries, mink pelts and milk goats.

Now in its fourth year, the Fox Lake-based charter school has set aside a day during National Ag Week to give students in grades 4K through 8 an up close look at a diverse cross section of the state's agriculture industry thanks to a host of presenters representing the diverse face of agriculture.

Presentations this year centered around the theme "Agriculture: How we rank #1 in the Nation". Students rotated among seven stations that promoted hands-on exploration of Wisconsin commodities including cranberries, cheese, beets for processing, cabbage for sauerkraut, milk goats, mink and ginseng.

Waupun Area School District and SAGES Ag educator Sheri Hicken says the program is a natural fit for the charter school that already has an emphasis on agriculture.

Over the past four years, Hicken has recruited presenters from around the state who have provided a myriad of topics ranging from honey bees, careers in agriculture and forestry, building a chicken coop, animal nutrition, manure digesters, school gardens and more.

"We strive to provide our learners with agricultural professionals who donate their time and expertise providing our learners with a rich, hands-on and real-world experience," Hicken said. "We encourage all presenters to make their presentation interactive to keep the students engaged and help expand their interest and enthusiasm for the topic being taught."

On March 18, SAGES students had the opportunity to sample goats milk while petting two young kids, explore — and sample — a variety of Wisconsin cheeses, feel for themselves the velvety softness of a mink pelt, and see how beets provide natural coloring for a wide variety of foods in the grocery store.

"Our presenters are always excited to share expertise to inspire learners to consider various career options in agriculture and expand their understanding of this diverse and dynamic industry," Hicken said. "Teachers are amazed at how much students are able to learn in such a short time frame and thrilled about all the potential connections they can make in the future as they continue to incorporate agriculture into their curriculum."

Hicken says students are totally engaged in the sessions and often tell her Ag Day was "the Best day of school ever!"

"There is also great anticipation and excitement leading up to Ag Day. Students light up both during the day and after when they recognize information that was shared during Ag Day and circles back in classroom discussions, activities, or other research endeavors," Hicken said.

This year's event also featured two new guests — Noel the heifer who held court in a pen out front and the other, Wisconsin State Ag Secretary Ben Brancel.

Hicken said students were excited to see Noel, the offspring of the school's mascot NoNo.

"(Noel's) mother NoNo was a calf the fall of our first school year and the students had the opportunity to name her. That first year, the students went to visit D&T Dairy in Fox Lake a few times, plus NoNo came to SAGES almost once a month for learners to interact and measure her," Hicken explained. "When NoNo had her calf in December 1, 2014, our students once again had the opportunity to name her."

Secretary Brancel provided closing remarks for the session.

Hicken says that the day-long event leaves a lasting impression on students that Agriculture is everything.

"It is production agriculture and so much more! It is something they can be a part of now and into the future and that in order to feed a growing population, we need them to be innovative thinkers and future problem solvers," Hicken said.

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