’Twas agriculture field day and not a video game was in sight. Rim Country kids played in a Rockin’ Rodeo, watched a branding, and learned how to harness draft horses all before night.
The Tonto Natural Resource Conservation District (NRCD) Agriculture field day offered about 100 students — fourth-graders from Payson Elementary School and 4-H members from Pine and Tonto Basin — the opportunity to learn about agriculture and gain an appreciation for food’s source.
“A lot of these kids don’t know where the milk comes from in the grocery store,” said Lori Brown, who hosted the event on her ranch.
Although PES was the pilot school, organizers want to expand the program to include as many schools as possible countywide next year.
Initial funding from the Tonto NRCD allowed Brown, along with friends Johnna Kile and Lani Hall, to teach PES students lessons about ranching, biology and where food comes from, as well as hold the field day. A person from Arizona Game and Fish also taught a lesson.
Now, the Resource Advisory Committee has offered an approximately $15,000 per semester grant to expand the program.
Brown, Kile and Hall grew up together and now work to reconnect youth to the land they grew up loving.
“We’re all five and six times generational ranchers,” said Brown. Compare a rancher’s way of eating to today, where most people drive to grocery stores and buy processed, packaged food laden with hydrogenated everything.
“There’s this national push to reconnect children with nature,” said Hall. “Kids are spending unbelievable amounts of time in front of the computer and TV.”
Hall went into schools and taught kids where pizza comes from. “There was one little boy who thought there was a pizza farm someplace.”
She starts with the crust and explains how it’s created from wheat, how cheese comes from milk and sauce from tomatoes. One pizza probably takes five or six farms, Hall said.
Kile dressed in a chicken suit and talked about the differences between an egg and a human cell. That includes how food nourishes the body. “If you’re putting in soda and candy all the time, what’s going to happen with your cells?” she asked.
Brown educates children about ranching.
On the recent agriculture day, when children watched a calf branding, “there wasn’t one kid who didn’t understand what was going on,” said Hall, because the lessons had intellectually prepared them for the actual event.
Students seemed to enjoy the various activity stations, which included a cowboy’s version of musical chairs complete with horse heads on sticks called Rockin’ Rodeo.
Another involved learning how to rope fake bulls and horses. Kids learned how to harness draft horses, watched a team of horses cut hay, watched a branding and saw a sheep shearing.
John Dryer, vice-chair of the NRCD, said the goal is also to instill an appreciation of the land and its resources. “Ranchers — they’re the best environmentalists we’ve got,” he said.
Vandalism has erupted as a problem recently, with people littering and shooting windmills.
Organizers hope that by exposing children to what the land offers, they’ll take better care of it.
“Everybody needs to know what we are and how hard we work,” said Brown.
Middle school student Briana Aguirre volunteered to help with agriculture day. “I think it’s really neat they set this up,” she said. “I think the kids are having fun with it and they’re learning a lot.”
PES student Destiny Madrid said she enjoyed the day. “It’s hard work and it’s really fun,” she said.
Brown envisions taking the program into schools countywide, perhaps even into churches and scouts.
Hall said kids respond to the program because it’s so tactile. “I think the reason this program has made a huge impact for the kids,” she said, “it’s not the traditional paper and pencil lessons.”
Especially at a time when the school’s money shortage has forced cuts, Hall said teachers welcome the opportunity for free lessons that educate students about such fundamental lessons.