‘Ag in the Classroom’ works to regain stride after year off due to COVID-19
Life and a pandemic can sidestep the best of plans, even for the Virginia Agriculture in the Classroom program.
Prior to the pandemic, much of VAITC’s emphasis was on a landscape overview of agriculture involving hands-on learning.
Through farm visits, teachers, educator trainings, school grants, and educational materials provided by the organization, students learned how to plant crops, count eggs and chickens, and choose plant varieties.
They were even able to ask farmers questions in person and hear volunteers read books through VAITC’s Agriculture Literacy Project.
That hands-on learning took a backseat to the pandemic but didn’t dampen enthusiasm.
“A year ago, on March 13, our world changed on a dime,” says Tammy Maxey, programs director of the Virginia Foundation for Agriculture in the Classroom. “When the governor said all schools will be closed, obviously that really impacted the Agriculture in the Classroom program. Within 24 hours, we were launching our new game plan.”
Before COVID-19, VAITC had developed a small video series named Farm Life 360, allowing students and teachers to experience the farm lifestyle as if they were riding a tractor, harvesting peanuts, or something equivalent.
Knowing that video experience worked, the organization kept expanding on its value, even more when the pandemic hit. Maxey jumpstarted VAITC’s virtual learning program, feeding more resources onto its website so children, parents, volunteers and teachers could obtain agricultural learning that would also support core curriculum such as science, mathematics and language arts.
“It quickly became evident to us it wasn’t just teachers and volunteers,” she says. “Families needed things; parents were looking for things.
“The governor shutdown schools on Friday,” Maxey continues, “and that Saturday night before midnight we had launched our first tease, which was simply a sign-up for educators of families [indicating] here’s a link to all these activities you can do with children at home. From that point, we decided to launch a twice-a-week lesson plan.”
While VAITC already offered a large website, www.agintheclass.org, its Facebook page “ebbed and flowed,” she says, “but now it’s consistently a planned part of our program. In the first three months, we had 200,000 views on our Facebook page. That was like an 80-percent jump from what we usually have. Throughout the entire 2020, we had a half-million people go visit our Facebook page. That was unheard of for us.
“We began to stretch our wings,” she says. “Within about the first month, we were really getting into it. As the school year ended for us, we knew the next school year was going to be that way, so we spent the summer creating that platform even further and richer.”
Smelling success, Maxey and her staff eventually created original content of 35 educational activities. Besides the additional resources, the agency added new educational videos to its Farm Life 360 and increased its social media pages on Facebook, Twitter,
YouTube, and Pinterest. The groups started hashtag offerings that consisted of what it called “#TeachMeTuesday,” “#ThinkerThursday” and “#AgSunday.” On each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday, VAITC put out a lesson plan.
Oftentimes, those plans included videos, activities, ideas, farm tours, and virtual meetups with farmers.
In addition, all those programs were compiled into a YouTube channel emphasizing lesson plans, farm tours, and activities such as churning butter, making a pizza, etc.
They partnered with other organizations such as Virginia Cooperative Extension, Soil and Water Conservation Service, and more.
As teachers started to return to the classroom, VAITC began offering grants to schools. Maxey says over a 12-month period, the organization awarded more than 80 grants, giving teachers the opportunity to develop classroom projects.
Additionally, the organization designed virtual projects for whole school divisions.
“We’ve been able to connect children, educators and parents since the pandemic began,” she says, “and those are some fairly new avenues for us. We gained an entirely new audience that was looking for virtual learning. That’s a new tool. People won’t give up that tool.”
She says her challenge in the future will be how to consistently balance virtual learning opportunities with in-face interactions. Her goal, and perhaps that of the foundation board, focuses on meeting that balance so the program can continue to grow rather than scale back.
Funding for VAITC comes from donations by the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation, state corporations, smaller companies, commodity boards, groups, and individuals.
Maxey says the organization’s funding goal for the year is $400,000. The annual operational budget is between $300,000 to $400,000. With those funds, VAITC teaches the importance of where “food and basic needs” come from and the career-related opportunities in agriculture.
With the pandemic’s arrival, goals and funding became even more important. “The pandemic acted as a catalyst,” Maxey says. “Our program is always looking for the next goal. If we’re reaching 400,000 now, we want to reach 500,000, then we want to reach a million children. We would like to reach everybody. We want public school, private school and homeschool.
“It just gives us another avenue to reach our goals,” she adds. “I would have never dreamed that we would have done so much virtual in the last year, but we had the opportunity and really needed to do it.”
She says the majority of website visitors are from Virginia, but she welcomes curious children, parents and teachers from all regions of the country. Unexpected is the visits from Virginia urban and suburban areas. Maxey recalls how one woman from an urban area said she never thought about where her food came from because she just went to the grocery store.
To continue offering those educational programs, VAITC needs the willingness of the private and public sectors to open up their hearts, checkbooks, wallets and pocketbooks. “For the coming year, we’re hoping that our funders will continue to support us so that we can expand on some additional projects,” she says. “Prior to the pandemic, we began to have some regional coordinators that focused on just one part of the state. We would like to expand that to additional parts of the state so that as venues or schools, and festivals and fairs reopen we will have folks that specialize in a region. Again, that’s going to require fundraising efforts to really ramp up to make that happen.”
Her goal is to increase her $400,000 budget by at least 15 to 20 percent.
During the pandemic, fundraising has been tight. “It has been a little bit of a worry for us, because we know that some people have been in a little more of a financial bind,” Maxey says.
Her push is to see that everybody knows where their food originates and to emphasize how farmers help bring food to the grocery store, restaurant and table. “That’s the impression we want to leave children with,” she says, “and hopefully along the way, it will peak some of their interest to investigate it more, or maybe even spark their interest in a career.”
The program touches all ages. Maxey says elementary students learn more about reading and math while secondary students focus on project-based learning, leadership skill development and career opportunities in agriculture.
In an average year, she estimates that VAITC’s programs and materials reach between 15,000 and 20,000 educators.
Children account for much more than that, about 400,000 annually through connections made by educators and volunteers. Maxey says each year, that number increases. Of the approximately 133 school divisions in Virginia, VAITC reaches from 65 to 70 percent of them.
Of course, the reach may expand through virtual learning and social media; however, Maxey has yet to release those new metrics. She’s too busy at the moment connecting residents of the state and beyond to the benefits of Ag in the Classroom.
For more information, visit www.agintheclass.org or call 804-290-1034.