A little more than a month after flood waters inundated the Washington County Fairgrounds, the grounds which have provided a home for area youth to show off their accomplishments in agriculture and livestock for generations is already back to providing a space where young people and agriculture can come together.
While the grounds have hosted an untold number of young people throughout the years—including 4H-ers showing off bucket calves or just kids enjoying the carnival at the annual Washington County Fair—this week more than 1,100 third-graders from four different counties will travel to the fairgrounds in Arlington for the annual Ag Literacy Festival.
The yearly event is organized by Nebraska Extension faculty and staff in Washington County and caters to third-graders from schools in Colfax, Dodge, Douglas, Burt and Washington counties.
Since beginning in 2000, more than 11,600 Burt, Colfax, Cuming, Dodge, Douglas, Saunders and Washington County third-grade students have attended.
This year’s event was also made possible with the help of dedicated 4H-ers who took time to help clean up the fairground after flooding from the Elkhorn River left several feet of standing water in the area.
Coordination between the Washington County Extension Office, Washington County Emergency Management and the Washington County Fair Board brought the group of young people together to help with the cleanup.
4H-ers picked up trash and debris strewn throughout the area, laid fresh wood chips around the playground, cleaned out barns, and washed bleachers and other areas in preparation for the Ag Literacy Festival which began on Wednesday, April 24 and continues through Friday, April 26.
At the Ag Literacy Festival, students get the opportunity to see livestock and tractors up close and personal all while learning the importance of agriculture and food confidence—especially when it comes to Nebraska’s economy and the state’s place in the agricultural industry as a whole.
“We want to teach kids about agriculture and how it is a big component of Nebraska economics, but really the purpose is to teach them about where their food comes from and gaining food confidence,” Tracy Behnken, Nebraska Extension Educator and event organizer said.
“When they know where their food comes from they can be confident about their food.”
On Thursday morning, students from Washington and Howard Elementary in Fremont got their opportunity to experience agriculture—learning about some of the state’s largest ag-related industries including beef cattle, dairy, pigs, corn, soybeans and ag technology.
While much of the information gleaned by students may seem commonplace to many adults in Nebraska—like how much is a bushel or how big an acre actually is—it serves as a starting point when it comes to making sure young people are informed about where their food comes from and the industry as a whole.
Extension Educator Kristen Ulmer enlightened the young students about beef cows during the festival—explaining the difference between steers, heifers, and bulls—and giving some insight into how big day-old calves are compared to the average third-grader.
“When a calf is born it weighs about 70-80 pounds, so it weighs more than some of you on the first day it is born,” she said. “That tells me that the calf has a much greater growth potential than we do—because you’re not going to be 1,300 pounds when you grow up.”
She also explained the importance of ruminants—like cows—in a place like Nebraska.
“We as humans can eat grass, but we can’t use it, we can’t get nutrients or energy from it,” she said. “Half of the state is covered in grass, so it’s important that we have these animals called ruminants to turn all that grass into nutrients and energy for us.”
In the Two Rivers Arena, Extension Assistant Autumn Lemmer also taught the students about measurements units used in agriculture like the acre and bushel by using things the eight- and nine-year-olds might be more familiar with.
“How many of you know what a football field looks like?” she asked the group of 30 or so students. “That’s what I want you to think of when you hear the word acre. Another unit of measurement we use is a bushel, and one bushel is about the size of a laundry basket you might have at home.”
One of the more exciting portions of the festival—for students—was the chance to get into a new John Deere tractor.
Before getting to sit behind the wheel, Jeremy Vrana of Platte Valley Equipment schooled the students on some of the technological features—specifically GPS coordination—that is commonly used on new tractors to help make ag producer’s lives easier.
“Why do you think a farmer would want to have a tractor that can drive itself?” he asked the students.
“To take a break,” one student replied.
“Yeah, we have some farmers that will eat lunch while they drive, we even have some that play Fortnight while they are driving,” he laughed. “But yes, it frees up time so they can focus on what the engine is doing, or what the planter behind is doing so that way they can plant those nice rows you see in the fields.”
Extension Educator Karna Dam presented the corn and soybean production session to students at the festival and said that as more and more people question agricultural methods, and where their food comes from, it is important to educate young people so they can make informed decisions as adults.
“I think it is incredibly important for kids to understand where their food and fiber come from, and to have at least a working knowledge so that when they become adults and the consumer that is actually purchasing the product they are knowledgeable about that,” she said. “There are a lot of myths in agriculture right now that have been laid out by a lot of groups, so we want to make sure that the kids grow up with the facts so they can make educated decisions, no matter what those decisions might be we just want them to be educated about them.”