Over the last year, almost 1,000 school children throughout Gila County have participated in the Agriculture Awareness program in Tonto Basin.
The program addresses the need to connect children with nature and avoid what some call “nature-deficit disorder.”
The program is part of the educational goals of the Tonto Natural Resource Conservation District in conjunction with the University of Arizona 4-H Youth Development program.
The program was launched in the spring of 2010 as a pilot program at Payson Elementary School to fourth-graders.
Following a successful pilot test, the program was fine-tuned and taken into the fourth grades at Charles Bejarano Elementary in Miami and Copper Rim Elementary in Globe during the fall of 2010. In Tonto Basin and Young, kindergarten through eighth-grade students participated as well.
Most recently, fourth-graders at Payson, Frontier and Julia Randall elementary schools, as well as fourth- through eighth-graders at Pine-Strawberry, Payson Community Christian and the Shelby schools have attended the program.
Various agricultural experts visit student classrooms, developing agriculture literacy. Students are then bused to “Ag Daze,” a full day of hands-on agricultural experiences at the H-4 Ranch in Tonto Basin.
Classroom lessons are one hour long and teachers include Lani Hall, with 4-H youth development; Lori Brown, Tonto Natural Resource Conservation District board member; Johnna Kile, Lauree Lee Connolly and Jessy Wedell.
Hall discusses agriculture careers, food production and how many farms it takes to make a pizza. Brown explains ranching operations.
Connolly describes harvesting cotton while Kile discusses the make-up of an egg and how it is similar to a human cell.
A large part of Kile’s science-based lesson is explaining how different substances can affect the human body.
The classroom portion culminates with a lesson on mining by Wedell, a volunteer with the Americor Program who teaches about the importance of mining in Gila County. He explains mining operations and then lets students “mine” a cookie for chocolate chips.
Following the classroom lessons, students are ready to head for the ranch, Brown said.
During the fall semester, students from Globe, Miami, Tonto Basin and Young made their way to Tonto Basin. During the three-day program, approximately 180 children attended each day.
On May 5 and 6, Brown hosted Ag Daze again for northern Gila County schools with again around 180 students attending each day.
Upon arrival at the ranch, each child gets a T-shirt and a board on which they brand their initials.
During the spring event, the Payson Agriculture Education Foundation also provided flowers for students to plant at home.
Students mine for gold at a mining station and take a wagon ride provided by Old West Adventures. During the wagon ride, Bill Brown and Brian Jennings point out different areas of the ranch and answer many, many questions, Hall said.
Later in the day, students observe cattle branding as well as vaccinations and ear tagging. Following a picnic lunch, students rotate through five stations, including: super looper, roping steer dummies; rockin’ rodeo, a stick horse obstacle course; petting zoo; harnessing demonstration; and farm fun, a race on tricycle tractors.
At the end of the day, students receive awards for sportsmanship, manners and overall winning attitudes.
“Our expectations for the program have been exceeded,” Brown said. “The greatest sign of success has been the many letters of thanks and all the excited faces as students experience something new and make a memory that will last a lifetime.”
One child summed up the day when he said, “This was the very best day of my life,” Brown added.
The program is funded by the Tonto Natural Resource Conservation District Education, Eastern Arizona Counties Resource Advisory Council and various sponsors including Payson Concrete and Materials, Arizona Public Service, Payson Ag Education Foundation, Payson Pro-Rodeo Committee, Pine Ice, Pepsi, H-4 Ranch, Old West Ranch Adventures, Shepherd’s Glass, Dan Hanna, Quality Pumping and Johnny Ketchem.
Arizona Sen. Sylvia Allen, Rep. Brenda Barton and Tonto NRCD member Terry Wheeler also attended.