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Becoming more farm literate

By Staff | May 9, 2014

Gia Simon, a fifth-grader at Humboldt Middle School, watches as banana DNA collects in a test tube held by her teacher, Becky Ross, during a session on plant genetics at the Youth Environmental Agriculture Days held on the Wright County Fairgrounds in Eagle Grove.

EAGLE GROVE – To tell the students participating in the 19th annual Youth Environmental Agriculture Day about the changes in farming over the last 100 years, Dennis Knight, safety and loss control manager for NEW Cooperative Inc., was provided with an appropriate venue.

He made use of a one-room school house built in 1888 – now preserved on the Wright County Fairgrounds.

“Back then you had no running hot water,” he told the group of students filling the old desks. “If you needed heat, you had to cut wood.”

They would have missed something else then, too. Even in the 1930s, few farms had electricity.

“You’d actually have to talk to each other,” he said. “Not text them.”

Claire Copper, a fifth-grader at Humboldt Middle School, looks over a handful of soy nuts being handed out by Jim Patton at the Youth Environmental Agriculture Days held on the Wright County Fairgrounds in Eagle Grove Friday afternoon.

The students got a bit of lesson in where food came from in those days. Chicken for dinner meant chasing one down, committing chickencide, plucking and cleaning the bird and then cooking it.

The students seemed to prefer the modern version, in a tray under clear plastic.

“Eeeeww,” they responded.

He also talked about the many other changes in agriculture. In 1900, horses were the main source of power on a farm. Steam tractors came next followed by diesel and gas models. According to Knight, it wasn’t until the 1950s that the number of tractors exceeded the number of horses.

Combines, which began to appear in the 1960s, have also gotten much bigger. The early models were two-row units.

“Now they make a 16-row head,” Knight said. “You can combine an acre in 30 seconds.”

In addition to becoming bigger, the equipment – now controlled by GPS – is much more precise.

“We’ll come within 2 inches of where we’re supposed to be,” he said.

It’s also gotten expensive, he said. A 400-horsepower tractor that can pull a 36-row planter costs about $400,000. In 1900, he said, a steam tractor cost between $400 and $1,500. That translates into about $12,000 to $42,000 in current dollars.

Knight said he enjoys talking to the students. A question he asks each class reflects the ongoing change in demographics off the farm that began in the 1920s.

“I had a class this afternoon that didn’t have anybody from a farm,” he said.

That might very well have been Lincoln Morgan’s fifth-grade Eagle Grove Middle School class.

“There’s not one here that’s on the farm,” Morgan said

He said it was important for his students to learn about agriculture.

“They need to learn how we use the corn and beans that we see all around us,” Morgan said.

The students also got to learn about DNA from Dean Getting, retail market manager for FMC Agricultural Products in Fort Dodge.

He defines it simply.

“It’s and spelled backwards,” he said.

OK, so it’s actually deoxyribonucleic acid, but, as he helped demonstrate with a student helper, that’s hard to pronounce.

It is, in all living things including the bananas the students were about to extract it from.

“If you ain’t eating DNA,” he said. “You’re eating rocks.”

So how do you extract DNA from a banana, with some basic chemistry? It’s a matter of separating DNA, which is a complex sugar, from the rest of the cell, which Getting described as being mostly, well, grease.

First the banana is turned to mush with some water in a blender. This mix is added to to a cup containing a tiny bit of shampoo. Then salt is added and the mix stirred. Next, the resulting mix is filtered through a coffee filter. The liquid that gets through, is added to a test tube with alcohol in it. This makes the DNA reform into visible strands.

To many “ooooohhs” and “aaaahhhhs.”

The lesson in genetics, the base for the field of biotechnology, is important to the survival of the human race. Getting showed the students a map of the world with each white dot representing 1 million people.

From about the year 0 to 1900, not too much happened. Then suddenly, the dots exploded exponentially in number turning some parts of the map, completely white.

“There are more people on the planet now than lived in the 1900 years prior,” he said.

Biotechnology serves an important role in keeping them that way.

“We use it to get more food out of every field,” Getting said.

Those crops can also be used for things not edible.

Jim Patton, the retired director of the Fort Dodge ISU Extension Service office, was on hand to tell the students about some of the many items that are made from corn and soybeans.

One example, a clamshell food container for taking home leftovers that offers something extra for the consumer.

“This decomposes in about six months,” Patton said.

He also showed the students a coffee mug completely made from a corn-based plastic and a package of animal bedding made from shredded corn stalks called “Corn Fluff.”

“This stuff sells for four bucks a bag in New York,” he said. “Just think how many of these are blowing around in our backyard.”

He also handed out samples of soy nuts to the students.

Claire Copper, a fifth-grader at Humboldt Middle School, gave them mixed reviews.

“I don’t really like them,” she said. “But I’m going to eat them anyway, I’m hungry.”

The Youth Environmental Agricultural Day is sponsored by the ISU Extension and Outreach for Hamilton, Webster, Wright and Humboldt counties. The daylong event helps youths develop an understanding of the impact of agriculture on the environment and their lives, health and safety.

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