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City kids learn real ag

In September, I visited the
cornfield where my son, Nate, worked last summer. The rented land on the Neal
Smith National Wildlife Refuge at Prairie City, Iowa, is where Iowa State
University (ISU) agronomists, ag engineers, and entomologists study how small
strips of prairie interact with field crops. Nate, a junior at ISU, showed me
root ingrowth tubes, lysimeters, and other tools he and some grad students used
to track movement of water and nutrients through soil and plants. It was a
sweaty, allergy-inducing job that fit well with his major in agronomy and
global resource systems.

You may have sons and
daughters who’ve gained from learning at our nation’s fine land-grant
universities. Five years ago, when Nate was halfway through Dowling Catholic
High School in Des Moines, it’s the last thing I’d have predicted for a city
kid.

Then he got to have lunch
with Nobel Laureate Norman Borlaug at the World Food Prize. He took a crop
science class offered by ISU at Dowling. He spent the summer after high school
as a Borlaug Ruan intern at the International Potato Center in Peru. By then
his youthful idealism targeted stewardship of the planet’s food resources.

His education is world
class. In the summer of 2009, he and other ISU students taught gardening and
beekeeping in Uganda. His grad student coworkers last summer were men and women
from Latin America and a bright farm boy from Nebraska. ISU is the nation’s
only college with a global resource systems major. It combines technical ag
expertise, say in economics or agronomy, with study of another culture and
language, and leadership training.

A Bridge Of Understanding

There is a point to this
bragging by a proud father: Land-grant universities recruiting city kids to ag
colleges is exactly what’s needed to bridge the gulf between agriculture and
urban America. When many are distraught over jobs and distracted by trivial
pursuits, it’s easy for animal rightists and others to exploit misunderstanding
of our food system.

This worries some 20 of the
top commodity groups who’ve formed the U.S. Farm and Ranch Alliance to buy
advertising. That’s needed crisis management. But longer-lasting bridges are
built by personal contact and understanding. That comes from education, when a
group of elementary students visits your farm, in Ag in the Classroom programs,
or when ag colleges recruit city kids.

ISU isn’t alone, of course.
In Kansas State University’s college of agriculture, only 31% of the students
are from farms; 25% come from cities bigger than 50,000. KSU’s students are
from 30 states and six countries.

Nor is ISU abandoning its
traditional base of students from farms and small towns. It recruits at FFA
conventions and farm shows. But with a shrinking rural population, ag colleges
need to draw from a larger population.

“I know how important it is
for the college to have students from a diversity of backgrounds – farm, city
or overseas,” says Wendy Wintersteen, dean of ISU’s college of agriculture and
life sciences.

It’s no paradise of
universal agreement. At ISU, vegans influence cafeteria offerings. City ag
students gravitate toward the student organic farm. Many students question the
food system. “Students’ changing passions make it an interesting time to be
dean,” Wintersteen says.

This cross-pollination
ultimately makes the food system better. City recruiting by ag schools should
continue – and grow – if we want rational ag policies in the future.  

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