Where does chocolate milk come from?
If you ask some fourth graders from West Ottawa schools, most will tell you it comes from brown cows. Others will tell you they didn’t know farms existed and that food comes from “the grocery store.”
And bacon coming from pigs? They have no idea.
They’re not joking — and the Ottawa County Farm Bureau isn’t waiting to get them on the right path to ag literacy.
That’s why the group hosted their first ever Project RED — or Rural Education Day — event on March 15, where more than 200 students could see local agriculture in action at Zeeland’s Visser Farms.
Students rotated through 10 stations, getting an up-close look at blueberry harvesting equipment from Crossroads Blueberry Farm, learning about Michigan's cherry industry, checking out a tractor from Burnips Equipment, seeing how produce is washed and preserved before heading to a grocery store, watching cows being milked, and more.
Ottawa County Farm Bureau member Tony McCaul has been an ag educator at Ottawa Intermediate School District’s Careerline Tech Center for 14 years. He brought student volunteers along with calves, chickens, piglets and bunnies for kids to get hands-on experience with to Project RED.
While his program of 70 students is on a waiting list, he said many of the attending fourth graders have never stepped foot on a farm, let alone thought about where their food comes from.
“They need to know the different career opportunities out there and even just so they're informed consumers, so when they go to the grocery store, they have that connection with a farmer and they know what is happening and how their food got there,” McCaul said.
Over the course of 2 hours, students did quick-hit rotations — less than 10 minutes each — at the educational stations. The fast-paced nature of the event kept them engaged, especially compared to traditional field trips, noted Dan Pelzolla, special education assistant at Great Lakes Elementary.
“They've had a lot of really insightful questions just kind of about farming about, like how plants grow, what kinds of apples they're eating, and the kind of stuff that they're consuming in their homes and in school,” Pelzolla said.
“A lot of these kids have never really been to a farm before and have never seen any stuff like, have never seen like a live farm animal for so a lot of them really enjoyed it.”
Schools were excited about the opportunity to get kids out to the farm, said Ottawa County Farm Bureau Educator Taylor Evans — who used her connections in classrooms to help organize the event. She said being able to bring fourth graders to the farm is a great way to get them thinking about farming and future career opportunities in agriculture.
“By high school or middle school, it's kind of too late,” Evans said.
“They've kind of set in their ideas and what they think. If we could get them in elementary school, we can really show them what actually goes on.”
Cindy Visser, who owns Visser Farms with her husband Phil, is the co-chair of the Ottawa County Farm Bureau’s Promotion and Education Committee. She said the time and planning into the event proved to be worth it.
“Children are our future,” Visser said.
“And if they don't understand, respect and appreciate where their food comes from already in fourth grade, it is a great stepping stone for them to appreciate where their food comes the rest of their life.”