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City kids learn real ag

DANIEL LOOKER 12/15/2010 @ 1:48pm Business Editor

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.

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