With its feet firmly planted in the 21st century, modern ag seeks to educate youth about farming.
This week in Gayville, Valley Ag Supply held its 11th annual Field to Table event for elementary and middle school students.
The event is set outdoors and offers three morning sessions: two for elementary levels and one is for middle schoolers. Each presentation follows the South Dakota educational standards.
Organizers designed the program to provide students with a hands-on agricultural learning opportunity in an in-field classroom where students can see local crops as they grow. There are seven stations set up for various presentations on ag topics including soil, farm machinery, corn and soybean growth and development, farm animals, finance and, for middle school students, genetics and biotechnology.
This year, nearly 800 students from 18 schools participated over the course of the three days. According to organizers, over 5,000 students have participated in the event since 2008.
Field to Table was originally organized by a farmer in Burbank, who ran it for a number of years.
"A customer of ours, Ray Hall, started Field to Table," said Tara Pirak, owner of Valley Ag Supply. "He got a little older and a little tired, and he said, ‘Would somebody take over Field to Table?’ and my husband Greg said, ‘Kids need to learn about agriculture, because who is going to teach them?’ So he took it on, and this is our 11th year."
Sadly, Greg Pirak died suddenly last year at 48, just two weeks before the Field to Table event was scheduled.
"The event was already set up and we never wanted to stop it," Tara Pirak said. "It was never an option, but it was heartbreaking and sad. The whole crew pushed forward."
Greg Pirak, who was originally from Cleveland, met his wife while they were both in college.
"Greg grew up in a city and didn’t know anything about agriculture," Pirak said. "When he went to the University of California at Davis, he thought that tractor driving and outdoor classes — the ag field — looked super interesting. He got into agriculture and became a super-passionate proponent of it."
As did his wife.
A job brought him to the Midwest where the couple started an ag business.
"This year is the second since he’s been gone, and we wanted to promote the heck out of Field to Table because we think it’s an important cause," Pirak said.
One crucial element of the program’s utility to schools is that it is aligned with the South Dakota Board of Education’s standards on agricultural education for the targeted grades.
"There really is no budget and no time in a student’s day to take a field trip and say, ‘Hey, you want to see something cool?’" Pirak said. "It’s 2019, and that’s not really in the cards."
At about the same time as the Piraks picked up the event, Cathy Nelson, a former teacher, went to work at Valley Ag and was central in planning the event to conform with the South Dakota educational standards.
"Teachers have to justify everything," Nelson said. "Everything is based on the educational standards. If you can’t say, ‘this is why I am doing this,’ and show that the standards that are hit, then you can’t necessarily do (an event). So I aligned each station here to the science and math standards, and I send those out to the teachers."
Teachers get a written statement of the standards each station addresses that they can take before the school board.
The livestock station, presented by Yankton County’s 4-H, addresses some of the standards by teaching students about the different uses of a pig, medical uses of pig by-products, manure as fertilizer and how livestock is affected by drought.
"Each presenter has the standards with them so they know how they are going to hit that," Nelson said.
Presenters included members of the Valley Ag staff, vendors, Ag Valley’s banker and Trans Ova Genetics, from Iowa.
"Years ago, Trans Ova brought semen and embryos and let the kids learn about what DNA they can extract and clone. It’s super fascinating," Pirak said. "Trans Ova usually only does college-level field trips, so it’s quite an honor that they will do this."
For students not set on farming, the sessions introduce them to many of the career paths linked to modern agriculture, including tech jobs.
Teachers’ survey responses and students’ verbal comments have been positive.
"One kid said, ‘If I’m not a major-league ball player, I am going to be a farmer,’" Pirak said.
Teachers who would like more information about Field to Table should contact Nelson at Valley Ag Supply.
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