PEORIA, Ill. — What do a central Illinois dairy plant and a group of Chicago-area schoolteachers have in common?
“School is out,” said one of the four tour guides at Prairie Farms Dairy in Peoria as he explained why three out of the four processing and packaging machines in the plant were in operation.
“Yes!” several teachers exclaimed in unison amid laughter from the group.
“Everybody’s happy with that,” the Prairie Farms official smiled.
“The other one is a half pint machine that only does school milk,” he added, asking the same question that the teachers want the answer to, as well.
“Why do you start school so early? By the second week of August, we’re making school milk already,” he said. “It seems like the summer is shrinking every year.”
They might have been a world away from their schools and familiar streets and neighborhoods of urban and suburban Cook County, but for the 14 teachers on the Cook County Farm Bureau Summer Agricultural Institute tour, the stops on the tour were speaking their language.
The teachers represented 12 Cook County schools and taught at grades 3 through 12. The four-day tour took them through agribusinesses that produce everything from milk to mushrooms, wine to ethanol and tractors to electricity.
Diane Merrion, Agriculture in the Classroom coordinator for the Cook County Farm Bureau, guided the teachers through each leg of the tour that was put together with the help of county Farm Bureaus, including Knox County, La Salle County, McLean County and Rock Island County.
“Almost all my students are urban. They live in town, and they really don’t know where their food comes from,” said Jim Spannagel.
Spannagel teachers earth science to freshman and, every third year, “Science and Society” at Crystal Lake Central High School. The school itself, in Crystal Lake, is in McHenry County, but Spannagel lives in Arlington Heights in Cook County.
Lauren Allen-Pilasiewicz, a fifth-grade teacher at Ames School in Riverside, in Cook County, was returning for her second year at the SAI.
“That reminded me of how much doing activities, hands-on and going places and then doing the theory part really boosts your knowledge and your memory, and I left with so much knowledge,” said Allen-Pilasiewicz, who moved from a career as a biologist in an animal hospital to teaching fifth grade.
As tour guides at the various stops along the tour talked about food production and agriculture, Allen-Pilasiewicz and the other teachers were the ones doing the learning.
“The things I learned and saw and some of the myths that were busted for me about farming and just learning about the process of food growing and making it to my house and that everything comes from the soil,” were some of the highlights from the 2012 event that were being carried into the 2013 event, Allen-Pilasiewicz said.
Some of that myth busting may have come from the tour guides at Prairie Farms Dairy as teachers learned about milk processing.
For instance, milk is a local food.
“Our milk comes from local farms, local meaning a 100-mile radius. We also get milk from Iowa and Wisconsin,” said the tour guide, adding that the plant gets milk deliveries 365 days a year. “The cows don’t quit, and we don’t either.”
Teachers also learned about how antibiotics in loads of milk are dealt with at the plant.
“That load gets dumped,” said a Prairie Farms lab technician, who explained that milk is sampled directly from the truck before the milk is unloaded.
“We double check it, and if it comes up positive again, it’s rejected,” the technician said.
“Is there a percentage that you allowed through or is it zero tolerance?” one teacher asked.
“Zero tolerance,” said the tour guide, adding that with samples taken from each farm, the milk can be traced back and the specific farmer can be charged for the whole load of rejected milk.
The second day of the tour started at John Deere Harvester Works, where the teachers received a tour of the factory, receiving waves and “hellos” from workers throughout the plant and even seeing some of the “Gold Key” guests, families who were there to start up their own newly-purchased combines as they rolled off the assembly line.
From Harvester, it was on to Akron Services grain elevator and fertilizer facility in rural Brimfield, where Larry Clay explained grain storage and marketing as trucks moved in and out and an end loader loaded the last of the 2012 corn crop at the elevator into grain trucks for transport.
“Farmers have the ultimate risk,” Clay told the teachers as he explained how farmers and traders market grain.
Before the grain can be marketed, it has to be produced, and Clay showed the teachers, by way of a neighboring cornfield, how an ear of corn is structured.
“Yield per acre is what you’re trying to determine. Is this farmer going to have 200 bushels, 250 or 150 is always the question,” Clay said. “See the tassels coming out here? You can see this is the ear itself. One of the big challenges is if you have insects that come in and chew on these silks, if they cut them off, it can’t pollinate that ear down.”
Once the grain is harvested, marketing the grain was the next lesson.
“In our world, we talk about old crop and new crop, and old crop is what they’re hauling out right now,” Clay said.
He said he wanted to impart the message about the enormous risk that farmers take each year.
“Once the crop is produced, it’s added value that goes with it. The major grain companies step in at that time. But the ultimate risk of the unknown is what are prices going to be, what is weather going to do for supply to the farmer so when I look at the risk factor right now, it’s still primarily the farmer who takes on the inherent risk. The first risk is the greatest risk, and that’s the function that he has always provided and has always been the most uncertain,” he said.
From Brimfield, the teachers traveled to Peoria and then on to the Illinois Farm Bureau headquarters in Springfield, where they learned about Illinois Agriculture in the Classroom.
Laura Vollmer, IAITC education specialist, talked about the various materials and resources available to teachers and classrooms.
Vollmer also led the teachers through a series of hands-on classroom activities, including separating seeds from bolls of cotton and constructing tabletop sculptures out of edible packing peanuts made from corn.
The glue? Teachers licked on the peanuts to get them to stick together.
The second day wrapped up with dinner at Mackinaw Winery in Mackinaw.
The tour stops also included Apple Tree Alpaca Farm, La Salle County Historical Museum, Monterey Mushroom, Patriot Renewable Fuels, Twin Groves Wind Farm, Birkey’s Implements, Living Water Greenhouses and the Kilgus Farmstead Dairy.
For Spannagel, Patriot Renewable Fuels, which is marking its fifth anniversary, was a highlight.
“I hear things all the time in the news about how ethanol is driving up prices, that using corn to make alcohol for gasoline is driving up the price of our food. We learned that the dried distilled grain that is left over after the process is actually a better feed for livestock than feeding them the whole grain and, in addition, we get 2.5 gallons of ethanol from each bushel of corn,” he said.
“Really, we’re coming out with a cleaner, more efficient product that will reduce air pollution. It’s a renewable source of energy, so I think energy is one of those topics I can tie in with my earth science students because we talk about where we get our energy from.”
Spannagel said the information will allow him to clarify the rumors and myths that his students hear and read about online.
“Sometimes my students bring those false myths into class. I was given some resources to refer students to and to show them that it’s important that we do our research before we accept something that we just hear or that we get from a blog. We really need to know what we’re talking about,” he said.
Spannagel said having the resources to guide students to becomes more important as students advance through the grades and develop critical thinking skills.
“That’s especially true when I deal with my seniors because we’re trying to teach them to be critical thinkers and not just accept everything you see or things you hear on TV or tweets or texts you get. They’re not always correct,” he said.
He also praised the openness and willingness of the various presenters and agribusinesses on the tour to talk and answer questions.
“We’ve met so many wonderful people who are willing to share their experiences with us, what they do for a livelihood and why it’s important and how they are great stewards of the soil and stewards of the resources that we’re using,” he said.
For Allen-Pilasiewicz, the tour provided education and ideas for her to incorporate into her busy daily classroom schedule. Even though the start of school was yet a few weeks away, the enthusiastic educator already was making plans.
“There’s so much to do in schools nowadays. We’re teaching social work, we’re teaching handwriting, keyboarding, we’re doing everything. To me, if you’re going to go and look up a code and find your dairy, you can add a math activity to that,” said Allen-Pilasiewicz, referring to the ability to locate, by scanning a QRF code on the side of milk cartons, the dairy where that milk was produced.
“You really do have to bring those concepts together. You really can do it. You just have to be creative. If I sit and listen to an activity, I’m going, ‘Oh, that could be a social studies activity, as well as a math,’ and I think that’s what we have to do more. That’s creative teaching, and that’s where the teacher comes in,” she said.
Although her students are a few years away from considering jobs or careers, Allen-Pilasiewicz said the tour also presented not just career options in agriculture, but gave her a new appreciation of the role agriculture plays in her state.
“I was really blown away by how many really depend on the agriculture in our state,” she said.