Minnesota farmer meets with students in California

Farm Forum

WORTHINGTON, Minn. – One might think that among the rows of corn and soybeans growing across the Midwest and the livestock farms that dot our southwest Minnesota landscape, students in our schools would know a few things about agriculture.

Yet, as more and more generations become removed from the farm, the disconnect between people and their food is growing ever larger. Now, programs like Provider Pals, sponsored in part by the Minnesota Soybean Growers Association, match farmers, loggers, commercial fisherman and miners with students in classrooms across the country.

Rural Worthington, Minn., crop and livestock producer Matt Widboom has been a Provider Pal for the last three years, and spent one day recently in a Glenwood, Calif., school on the outskirts of Los Angeles, teaching 800 seventh- and eighth-graders about farming.

The connection was actually forged last fall, when Widboom began shooting two-minute video clips from his farm, and then sharing them with the students during their science class.

“The intent is kind of Ag in the Classroom, but it’s more of a pen pal set-up,” Widboom explained, adding that his first videos showed crop harvest, and his last videos will be shot during the planting season. “The visit is really the culmination of the whole experience.”

Designed to teach students about different facets of natural science and agriculture, Widboom said the program is also about building relationships. His videos shared information about his family, things they do in the community and their extended family.

“A lot of the other producers involved chose to do journal entries, but I’m not the best writer,” he said. “A video was pretty easy for me to put together.”

The Glenwood school he was matched with is comprised of students predominantly of Armenian and Hispanic descent. As they began to watch his video clips, they were encouraged to write questions –sometimes making a video of their own — to learn the answers from Widboom.

Some questions were basic, like “How much water do cattle drink?”, while others pertained more to science, like “Do you test the water for pH levels?” or “Are there any physical forces that you have to work with doing your job?”

“I said mainly just mud is the force that stops us, spring and fall,” Widboom said with a laugh.

“When we were in the classroom, I had a chance to be face to face with the kids and they had a lot of questions based on what we’ve been sending them,” he added. One question that surprised him and wife, Theresa, was “How long do cattle hibernate?”

Cattle don’t hibernate, of course, but it’s a question that clearly showed Widboom the need for more agricultural education in the classroom.

“We’re so far behind, and we’ve got to tell our story,” he said, adding that some students he met believed the only meat and milk items they can consume must be organically produced.

Widboom said he doesn’t push one method of production agriculture over another, but tries to at least get students thinking about their beliefs. Most importantly, he wants them to understand where their food comes from.

“Not all of the kids knew where Minnesota was, let alone what a farmer did,” he said.

To help tell his story in the classroom, Widboom took along numerous props, from his boots, coveralls and stocking cap to all of the components of cattle feed he uses on his farm, syringes, needles, ear tags and an ear tagger, and samples of soy-based products like chocolate covered soy nuts and lip balm. He even had some seed corn hats to give away.

Widboom, whose other Provider Pals experiences were in Minnesota and New York, serves on the Minnesota Soybean Growers Association board of directors, and is a member of its communications and education committees. Ron Obermoller of Brewster is also a participant in the Provider Pals program.

“We really put our focus on consumer awareness through agriculture production,” Widboom said. “We’re proud to be a farmer and proud to stand up to any audience and explain how we do it and why we do it.”

The Provider Pals program is offered in Worthington Middle School. More than 120 middle-schoolers will get to meet and ask questions of a Minnesota logger, soybean farmer, pork producer and turkey producer.