2012 PRESS RELEASES
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March 14, 2012
CELEBRATING VIRGINIA AGRICULTURE AND AGRICULTURE LITERACY WEEK IN STYLE
By Matthew J. Lohr, Commissioner, Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services
Contact: Elaine J. Lidholm, 804.786.7686
Commissioner Lohr read a book about his own farm to students at Keister Elementary School in Harrisonburg to kick off Virginia Agriculture Literacy Week.
One of my favorite weeks of the entire year is when we pause and celebrate both Virginia Agriculture and Virginia Agriculture Literacy Week. I know for my own children it probably doesn’t compare to the enthusiasm felt during the Christmas holidays or even spring break, but for me as Commissioner it is very special. I love telling people about the significance of our top industry and this particular week gave me and others the chance to take our message into our schools. I can think of no better place to share our story than the ears and eyes of our youth.
For the second year in a row, here in Virginia we have combined these two events into one action-packed week. Recently Governor Robert F. McDonnell declared March 4 – 10, 2012, Virginia Agriculture Week AND Virginia Agriculture Literacy Week. To me there are no two events that go more perfectly together.
On Monday of that week Sandy Adams, our Deputy Commissioner, and I each read to six classes of kindergarteners, first graders and second graders at an elementary School in Harrisonburg. On that same day, our Budget Director read to her child’s class in Hanover County. On Tuesday while I read to a group of preschoolers at the Richmond Children’s Museum, our State Veterinarian read to an elementary school in Lunenburg County. In following days we had employees, Board members and a university professor read to preschools and elementary schools across the state.
From what I have heard, I am not the only person to have a grand time – although Sandy and I may be the only ones who nearly lost our voices. The children and teachers were so receptive. From what I hear from employees who have done this for years, the level of agricultural literacy has risen significantly today, and the children kept us on our toes with their questions.
Fifteen years ago, children routinely listed eggs as a dairy product because you bought them in the dairy case. In Harrisonburg, every student had visited an orchard on a school field trip and many indicated they went to farms to pick apples or pumpkins. In this part of the state where poultry is big business, they impressed me – a poultry grower – with their knowledge of chicken and eggs. And not one person thought eggs were a dairy product.
Sandy spoke to one class of students studying English as a Second Language. They were extremely articulate but often asked about pronunciations. It’s one thing to go from Spanish or another Romance language to English, but imagine going from Russian or Amharic to English. We were surprised to learn that between 60 and 70 languages are spoken in relatively rural Harrisonburg.
One of our staff veterinarians reported that in both classes where he read, the teachers made it a whole farming learning day. Dr. Broaddus may have been the only guest, but agriculture was the theme for everything the students did that day. As a former teacher, that really excites me. Learning doesn’t happen in fits and spurts; most of the time it is an integrated process, and if you can combine reading, coloring, sharing snacks and counting the number of cows on a page, you have not only taught agriculture to young students, you’ve taught life skills. Perhaps more importantly, you’ve created positive images of agriculture. I’ve already made a mental note to do what an employee from our laboratory in Wytheville did: take milk and cookies. She worked with a local processor to donate milk, which gave another segment of the industry some visibility. Don’t you know if you say the word “agriculture” and milk and cookies come to mind, you have a very positive impression of the industry!
This staff member went to an academy in Rural Retreat and the Wytheville Community College Child Development Center where she read two books. One of them, From Our Fields . . . to You, was written by a farmer in the area. She let the children examine the skulls of a bear, deer and cow, as well as different-aged fetuses of animals preserved in formaldehyde. At the Academy, she was scheduled to read to the lower levels only, but everyone was so excited about the animals in jars that the entire school participated. This was the first assembly the school ever had with a speaker from the outside, and I am very proud that it was one of our staff members talking about agriculture.
Agriculture Literacy Week had its debut last year, and I want to thank the Agriculture in the Classroom Program at Virginia Farm Bureau for starting this new tradition. We certainly took advantage of it at VDACS to promote agriculture in Virginia.
If those of us in agriculture want to do the industry good service during Agriculture Week, I think we need to present agriculture in all its forms. I always like to emphasize that agriculture is a technologically sophisticated industry, the largest in Virginia. While the image of a guy in bibbed overalls, pitchfork in his hand, manure on his shoes, making a living off a few rows of butterbeans and a dozen hens is appealing on some levels, I contend that we need to present both ends of the spectrum and all that lies between.
I don’t mean to downplay small farmers and sensibly-dressed growers. They have a very important place in Virginia agriculture as the face of the local farmer. At several schools, students and teachers mentioned that they go to a farmers’ market regularly where they buy from “their” farmers. That’s the beauty of Virginia agriculture – everyone big or small has a place. And that’s why I’m excited about Agriculture Literacy Week.
Those of us who read to students didn’t go in, read a book and then leave. We talked to students about our farms and our farmers. We told them that agriculture isn’t just corn and tomatoes, wheat and soybeans. It includes livestock and seafood as well as crops, manufactured products as well as fresh-from-the-field products. It even includes tourism. Agritourism is a growing industry in Virginia, and each year we have more and more farms that invite people to come and experience farm life first-hand. I hope our visits to schools across the state spur a veritable rush to our pick-your-own farms this spring and summer. Certainly we heard lots of reports about going to orchards, berry farms and pumpkin patches from the students we met March 4 - 10.
Ag Week doesn’t have to occur only in March. Agriculture is something we can celebrate every day. You’ll find more information on Ag Week 2012, including a Flickr set of photos. You’ll find more information on Ag Literacy Week. I encourage you to go to these sites and be inspired to celebrate agriculture in your home, school and community every day of the year.