8 Ways to Engage Youth in Ag

8 Ways to Engage Youth in Ag

Reading Time: 6 minutes

“Each generation imagines itself to be more intelligent than the one that went before it, and wiser than the one that comes after it,” George Orwell said. As an FFA advisor and agriculture teacher, I see these days disconnected from nature and agriculture. I remember fondly sitting in silence watching my childhood poultry swim in their kiddie pools or graze on the grass. Today, many would prefer to play video games on their phones, than to look up, and not only smell the flowers, but talk to their neighbor — who is also playing video games. And before you think I am some old curmudgeon — I am in my young thirties!

Agriculture provides a nexus of vocational skills that is hard to beat in any other field of study. It can teach not only carpentry, husbandry, and business, but also patience, leadership, and empathy. Globally the average age of farmers is 60 according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). I heard a similar average age for agriculture teachers. With a growing population near eight to nine billion in the next few decades, we will need not only more “farmers” but more agriculture-minded scientists, lawmakers, and leaders. Here are 10 ways to engage youth in ag.

  1. FYI DIY is FUN Do not only allow your child to help with a build but include them in the design process. Whether it is a chicken coop, quail pen, or rabbit hutch, kids will have cosmetic and structural ideas. Let their creativity run wild. If budgets or space limit their idea, have them find viable solutions. Critical thinking is a skill that needs to be honed. Learning how to use basic tools is also a talent that all youth should discover. Seeing the manifestation of a structure that came out of their own imagination would certainly get a kid hooked on ag DIY projects.
Stella and her dad in 2014 building the family’s rabbit hutch.
Stella today, enjoying her pet and meat rabbits.
  • Make it Game A few years ago Feed the Future, Africa Lead, and Mercy Corps AgriFin Accelerate (AFA), funded a TV show titled, Don’t Lose the Plot. Wanting to promote farming to the youth as a ‘cool’ and viable career venture, this competitive series confirmed that contests are attractive to adolescence with 3.4 million viewers watching the show in Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda. More than 60 percent of viewers were aged 18-34, with equal male and female audiences. How can we recreate the excitement for farming here? In a classroom, students can receive the same size seed grown plant and be charged with its care for a semester. The most productive vegetable plant or the one that produces the most flowers is the winner. Another option is that these project plants are then auctioned off or sold at a school plant sale. This game can also be used for livestock and poultry. At home, parents and kids can compete with the most productive plot or window box. The winner? The whole family as they enjoy the floriferous landscape or bountiful yields.
A friendly backyard chore competition between siblings can be very engaging – until they catch on.
  • Garden Design Designing a garden and watching it mature through the seasons and years is a great way to engage youth. Planning and then tending to a garden teaches so many life lessons, it would be hard for someone not to be engaged. A future landscaper, bugologist, or health food consumer, would be fully engrossed as they explore the interdependences between plant species, plant and animal dynamics, and plant and abiotic factors. Gardening and the design and implementation of the plants can be for everyone. Both edible or ornamental gardens can be empowering to kids. My favorite combo is ornamental edible. Plants like orchid cream nasturtium, hyssops, amaranths, and butterfly peas are some of my students favorites. Fairy gardens with minature buildings and furnishings can get children out of the house and start exploring nature. If you need help convincing a loved one to let their child outdoors more, recommend Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv. The book cites research indicating that exposure to nature is essential for healthy childhood development and for the physical and emotional health of children and adults.
Fairy gardens empower children to use their imagination.
Fairy gardens with minature buildings and furnishings can get children out of the house and start exploring nature.
  • Poultry Power I loved the entire process of raising poultry when I was a child. From researching and then selecting which breeds I would order, to which individuals would breed, I was enthralled by the endless options. I also loved the business aspect of pricing, advertising, and keeping my inventory Excel sheets updated. While there are many kid-friendly chicken breeds, I believe ducks and quail offer similar options. After 20+ years, I do have a fondness for raising ducks, as they have sassy personalities. Quail are great for small backyards and a possible option for those living in a HOA neighborhood. Several YouTube channels including Jake Grzenda from White House on the Hill have videos on a kid’s role for butchering poultry. Providing food for your family, from eggs to broilers, would certainly be engaging to many kids. 
7th Grader Roman enjoying his backyard chickens, Chick Norris, Hen Solo, Captain Cluck Cluck and Doug.
Roman holding Chick Norris.
  • Carnivorous Plants While I am the Education Director of the International Carnivorous Plant Society(ICPS), and most likely bias, how could anyone argue that a carnivorous plant couldn’t engage youth in horticulture? Yes, there are Venus flytraps, but there are literally 800 other species for kids to explore. Some are native to Iceland while others are found in the tropical rainforests of Borneo. Many commonly cared for species are native to Eastern and Southern United States. Regardless of your set up, there is a species that you could be growing. Some require the outdoors and a dormancy period while some can be grown indoors. Check out ICPS for growing details or check out my education tab over there for mazes, videos, word searches and educational infographics. A plant that likes to be fed? Engaging!
8th grader Andrew showing off his pitcher plant Nepenthes x venrata.
  • Tech While it is important to find a balance between technology and nature, the advancement in ag tech is astonishing. Students who invest time learning about UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) or UAS (Unmanned Aircraft System) are always impressed with their capabilities. Most drones weigh between five and 50 lbs and are capable of not only doing aerial imagery, but can detect nutrient deficiencies in specific sectors and applying seeds, fertilizers, or herbicides appropriately.
  • Ag Ed Agriculture is not only “farming”. There is the human, social, economic, and environmental aspects of agriculture. From biotechnology to social justice, everyone has a place at the ag ed table. At my school students have opportunities to explore their leadership skills through serving as an FFA officer or committee member, work on personal growth and career success. The three major components in school include; classroom/laboratory instruction (contextual learning), Supervised Agricultural Experience (SAE) programs (work-based learning) and student leadership organizations.
High schooler Vincent tending to his backyard quail business.
  • Count the Profits Money talks — even to kids. When I was in middle school, not only did my father and I install a nickel gumball feed machine, so the neighborhood kids could supplementary feed my poultry, but I created a name a duck for a buck scheme. According to my parents, I charged the neighborhood kids a dollar to name and then rename the same duck. But I cannot attest to that. When children start learning the value of growing crops and raising animals and learn how to calculate inputs and outputs, they will be engaged in their own business. In addition to being a kid, their niche can be focused on heirloom crops and rare livestock. Consider entrepreneur Jere Gettle, owner of Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. He printed his first seed catalog at age 17 and now has over 700,000 people receiving the catalog and over 20,000 people attend his National Heirloom Exposition.

Originally published in the June/July 2021 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.

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