Farm field trips help ag educators make critical connection

Colleen Kottke & Carol Spaeth-Bauer
Wisconsin State Farmer

Each year, tens of thousands of elementary school children board school buses that transport them to a destination that only a fraction of them are familiar with — a working dairy farm.

A visiting student examines just one of the kinds of grains used to feed the cattle at Majestic Crossing Dairy.

Sure, most students have a basic grasp of what takes place on a farm. However, agriculture programs and organizations like Wisconsin Farm Bureau and Future Farmers of America strive to make that critical connection between the farm and the children's dinner table.

This outreach is more important than ever because the average American is now at least three generations removed from the farm. In fact, farm and ranch families make up less than 2 percent of the U.S. population.

"The biggest thing we hope that students take away from their visit her today at Majestic Crossing Dairy is that they understand that their food comes from the farm, and not the grocery store," said Marcia Fenner, coordinator of the Sheboygan County Farm Bureau Agriculture in the Classroom farm visits. "Some of these kids will probably never step foot on a farm again after today."

Despite rain showers last week, nearly 1,000 third and fourth grade students from the city of Sheboygan, Sheboygan Falls, Random Lake, Cedar Grove and Elkhart Lake participated in the Sheboygan Farm Bureau's "Classroom on the Farm" field trip at Majestic Crossing Dairy, a sixth generation farm that milks over 900 cows and runs 1350 acres of cropland.

"Our family is proud to share our farming heritage while providing the students with a fresh perspective on how the latest technology helps farmers produce the highest, quality dairy product possible—milk," said owner Dean Strauss, whose great, great great grandfather Moritz Strauss purchased farmland in Sheboygan County in 1853.

As students exited a caravan of yellow school buses, they were greeted by a group of nine seasoned volunteers who escorted them around the farm, visiting nine educational stations led by agriculture industry professionals and designed to introduce children to cutting edge technology on the farm, animal husbandry and healthcare, crop production, animal nutrition and even a chance to try milking the old-fashioned way, with "Addie the Cow".

Volunteer Paul Stoffel quizzes students as they make their way to one of nine stations set up at Majestic Crossing Dairy.

"The cows aren't used to a lot of people so when you walk into the barn you have to be very quiet," said longtime volunteer Paul Stoffel. "The cows are very friendly but you don't want to scare them. So let's listen good and have lots of fun!"

Inside one of the cavernous freestall barns filled with cows, children watched as cows filed into several milking stations and were tended to by a robotic arm that cleaned, milked and then disinfected the cow's teats, all the while collecting data from the milk and the e-collar fastened around the animals' neck.

"Cows go through the robots three times a day. And if one of them doesn't, the computer will alert the farmer and because of that collar, they know exactly where she is so they can go and check on her," said volunteer Kathy Zimbal.

Students who are no strangers to technology were pleasantly surprised to see an automated feed pusher — which one student likened to a "Star Wars droid" — moving slowly up and down the feeding alley, pushing rations up closer to the cows to encourage feed intake.

Students watch as a Lely robot pushes up the feed in a freestall barn at Majestic Crossing Dairy.

Inside the machinery shed, Kristie Johnson of Riesterer & Schnell told students that members of the farm family and their employees farmed over 3350 acres, "Which is like 3,350 football fields side by side."

Machinery used to plant, harvest and prepare those crops for storage and consumption use state-of-the-art technology. GPS equipment allows farmers to pinpoint the location of the machinery and with the touch of a button, the operator allows the vehicle to steer itself, said Josh Miller.

"How much do you think this big John Deere chopper costs?" he asked.

$3,000? A million dollars?

"This chopper costs $750,000, more than three big houses," Miller said.

First year teacher Shane Jach said a quarter of the students in his fourth grade classroom at Cedar Grove live on a dairy farm.

"For them it's just another day on the farm but this it is a great opportunity for the other students to connect and understand where a lot of their classmates live," he said. "I am so impressed with this field trip. The presenters are very knowledgeable and have a passion for sharing that information and interacting with children."

Jefferson County

Some kids ran among the Jersey’s at Kutz Dairy, LLC, covering their noses. Others rushed from cow to cow trying to get the cattle to eat from hands. Most were city kids, not familiar with the sights, smells and nuances of farm life.

As more than 681 students, 34 teachers and 145 adults came through the Kutz farm in Jefferson on May 2, Walt Cousens, with the Jefferson County AgriBusiness Club, told the students, “You people are special because you are our future.”

Students and calves meet during a fourth grade farm tour at Kutz Dairy, LLC, in Jefferson, on May 2. The visit, run with help from the Jefferson County Agri-Business Club and Farm Bureau teaches students about agriculture.

“We want to show you a small portion of agriculture today so you can see how deep agriculture can go, how important it is and that when you go to the grocery store, yes, the food is in the grocery store to buy, but where does it come from,” Cousens said. “It comes from like, the fields here, where we grow all different kinds of products and some that comes from all over the world.”

The Jefferson County fourth grade farm tour, now in its 25th year has moved locations, starting at St. Coletta’s, then the Jefferson County Fairgrounds and for the past seven or eight years at Kutz Dairy. Cousens was there at the beginning, using the fourth-grade curriculum on Wisconsin agriculture to get “the ball rolling” on the farm tours.

Fort Atkinson FFA student Abby Kucken (left) cuts an apple to show the small percentage of space on Earth that is used for farming during a fourth grade farm tour at Kutz Dairy, LLC, on May 2.

Students visited 11 different agricultural stations spread out on the farm. Stations are taught by FFA members from six surrounding areas, agriculture industry professionals, Kutz family members and the farm veterinarian.

"With fewer people in agriculture, it’s important for everyone to “know where our food and our fiber, everything that we use today, comes from,” said Mariah Hadler, Farm Bureau and AgriBusiness Club volunteer. 

Ron and Pam Kutz started Kutz Dairy in 1973 with 10 Holstein cows. Over the years, they have gradually increased their milking herd and by 1994 they were milking 250 Holstein cows. Kutz Dairy, LLC. now milks approximately 1,900 Jersey cows and raises 1,700 replacement heifers.

Amid the snow, late planting and rain, Pam said they take the time do the tour because, “We enjoy it.”

Fourth grade students learn about the milking parlor at Kutz Dairy, LLC, on May 2, where 1,900 registered Jersey cows are milked. The visit was part of a fourth grade farm tour hosted by the Kutz family, the Jefferson County Agri-Business Club and Farm Bureau.

Daughter-in-law Katie Kutz, said the tours are the “best way to educate people on dairy, the ag industry as a whole. It’s our only opportunity really, to get kids from the city out to a dairy farm and learn.”

At a time when the ag industry “doesn’t do a great job of marketing” with “an amazing story” to tell, there is “no better way to do it than hands on,” said Katie.

Outagamie County

In Outagamie County an ag agent started Adventures in Dairyland in 1982, where fourth graders learn about food, especially dairy products. Kelly Oudenhoven, with the Outagamie Farm Bureau and Outagamie County Dairy Promotion Board, took the program over two years ago and gave it a “facelift.”

Booklets the students used in the program were updated in color. They created a PowerPoint to go along with the booklet “to keep the kids’ interest as many of them are tech savvy and love the interactive PowerPoint,” Oudenhoven said in an email.

After five weeks of classroom instruction where students learn how cows came to America, learn to identify different breeds, how milk comes from a cow and ends up on the table and learn about ag careers, students get to tour a farm.

“This program is ever so crucial, especially when we are at a time that people truly do not know where their food comes from,” Oudenhoven said. “Consumers have so many questions and instead of asking farmers, they turn to the internet where they find a wide range of answers, some of which are not true.”