COVER STORY: A head start for ag

Kids today are being bombarded with all sorts of politically motivated messages on TV, in movies and even in the classroom. Fortunately, Ag Mag, an award-winning, thrice-yearly agricultural magazine for North Dakota third-, fourth- and fifth-grad...

Kids today are being bombarded with all sorts of politically motivated messages on TV, in movies and even in the classroom. Fortunately, Ag Mag, an award-winning, thrice-yearly agricultural magazine for North Dakota third-, fourth- and fifth-graders, has been there since 2001 to help counter any anti-agricultural information that may have found its way into classrooms. This month, Ag Mag will publish its 20th issue.

Kenneth Junkert, an administrative services division director with the North Dakota Department of Agriculture, recalls the information gap that existed before 2001.

"When we started developing brochures and working on curriculum for students, what I quickly discovered was that we were way underfunded to combat the anti-agriculture message that was trying to get into the classroom," he says.

Ag in the classroom

Ag Mag is funded under North Dakota's Agriculture in the Classroom program, the goal of which is to "cultivate an understanding of the interrelationship of agriculture, the environment and people by integrating agriculture into K-12 education."


While other states have similar programs, North Dakota stands out for one reason.

"We're one of few states that actually has their program described in law," Junkert says.

Title 4, chapter 37 of the North Dakota Century Code established the program, to be administered by a 16-member council, including the state's agriculture commissioner and superintendant of public instruction. The commissioner appoints the other 14 positions.

The council can deliver grants and sign contracts to develop an agricultural curriculum for pre-kindergarten through 12th-grade classes. It has

$110, 000 to disperse every two years and whoever receives those grants becomes nonvoting members of the council.

One of the ag curricula is participation in the national Food, Land and People Project, which teaches elementary and high school educators ways to integrate agricultural information into the science, math, social studies, language arts and other classes they teach.

Information gap

Junkert had begun his work with the Agriculture in the Classroom program in 1997, four years before the first issue of Ag Mag was published.


"I remember coming across this material that was kind of an anti-agriculture curriculum. It talked about the methane gas issue with livestock production and the pollution issue that flowed from agriculture, production practices and things like that. There were actual materials that had those messages in them," he says. "I was under-funded, under-resourced to combat that message and that was really kind of a shock to me."

Meanwhile, Becky Koch, director of North Dakota State University's Ag Communications department, was floating a new idea around. She had come to NDSU from her position as director of the Kansas Foundation for Agriculture in the Classroom.

"I love teaching others about agriculture," she says. "So it was kind of a passion of mine, and I bounced the idea around here -- what should NDSU be doing to educate younger people about agriculture?"

She wanted to find a new conduit for agricultural scientists to share information, not with the university's undergraduate and graduate students, but with much younger students. She wanted to get them excited about agriculture.

"Ag enrollments were really going down, and fewer and fewer kids were actually growing up on a farm or had Grandpa or Grandma working on the farm," she says.

Because of this, Junkert thinks that getting the right message into the classrooms is vital.

"We're not just one generation away from the farm now," he says. "Many kids are two and even three generations away, and so that connection back to that rural lifestyle, that farming way of life, has really been severed."

An idea was forming for a new publication. She and Junkert were on the same page, heading toward a new ag publication aimed at elementary school-aged kids. All they needed was a bit more funding.


"We went to the Legislature and said that, with a few resources, we could start to develop a message," he says.

Junkert reasons that if North Dakota schoolchildren have an understanding of agriculture's importance, they will have an appreciation of it. When anti-agriculture messages are put in front of them, "they'll at least have the background to question it. I think that's the best we can do."

Building this background would be done through Ag Mag.

Ag Mag

NDSU's Ag Communications department, which publishes the university's ag-related brochures, variety trial and research reports, received a grant from the Agriculture in the Classroom program to produce Ag Mag.

Koch decided to write and edit the new magazine herself.

"To be honest, I'm kind of selfish," she says, adding that she enjoys putting the kid's magazines together.

"And then a graphic designer here in Ag Communication just does a bang-up job of making it look inviting to kids," she says. "It's not just a bunch of boring copy. We try to make it as interactive as possible."


The magazine averages eight pages that are full of games, puzzles and artwork. By design, it is more than just something to read, yet it is full of agricultural information. A repeated theme is the "agriculture cycle."

"We try to talk about production, processing, distribution and consumption, to work in the nutrition," Koch says. "How are you involved in this commodity, even though you may be far-removed from a farm? You drink milk. You eat yogurt. Did you know this is the process that product came through?"

Also available is a teacher's guide with each new issue. This includes directions for more hands-on activities that the teacher can direct in the classroom, background information about which the teacher may not know and answers to the quizzes and puzzles in the magazines.

Writing for kids

Writing for kids is about more than just simplifying your vocabulary, as Koch says Lon Tonneson, an award-winning journalist, found out in late 2006.

"He wrote the technology issue for us because, occasionally, I farm it out," Koch says. "But he told me this was the hardest thing he'd ever done, because he couldn't just go interview somebody and write paragraphs and include quotes."

He had to figure out how to turn each "story" into a fun, or at least interesting, activity and ensure that it still was educational.

The graphic designer is a big help, especially one who can create cartoons. NDSU's Ag Communications department has one on staff.


"Dave Haasser can bring things alive," Koch says. "He can make a gas pump look like an ear of corn or something."

Each magazine focuses on a specific agricultural topic. Past issues have covered wheat, corn and beef and dairy cattle, to name a few. And because the students who have seen these issues will move on and be replaced every few years with new students, Koch says they don't have to write three new issues each year.

"We're at the point where we update two past issues, whatever the two oldest ones are, and we create a new one, each year," she says. "So last year's new one, for example, was on weeds, for which there was a special request."

Making weeds fun

Koch was sure it was going to be a difficult one to write, wondering how she could get third-, fourth- and fifth-graders excited about plants with names like toadflax, leafy spurge and thistle.

"But once we got into that one, we had a blast," she says.

The cartoon on the cover shows a sinister-looking weed -- with a head that reminds one of a Tyrannosaurus Rex -- about to devour a small, helpless-looking corn plant. There are three pages full of plant and weed drawings with instructions for the students to label the weeds with a "W" and the nonweeds with an "N." There is a word search for weeds found in North Dakota, several pictures that show how weeds travel and a few math problems based on what 30 acres of weeds can do to the income from 100 acres of wheat, complete with a cartoon of the dinosaur weed gobbling up $100 bills.

"We were very pleased, and that one won several awards," Koch says.


The Ag Mag weed issue, published in fall 2008, placed first in the tabloid category of the National Federation of Press Women, and placed third in the targeted publications category of National Association for Communication Excellence. The target audience, of course, was third-, fourth- and fifth-graders.


Before Koch publishes Ag Mag and has it shipped to North Dakota schools, she invites the Agriculture in the Classroom Council to take a look at it and offer feedback.

"Typically, they say, 'It looks great; the teachers should love this,'" she says. "A few times, I've asked some education faculty here at NDSU to review it."

She's looking for professional confirmation that the publication was on target with the teaching concept and with readability, among other things.

"They've said, 'Oh, this is neat. We're going to share this with our elementary education students,'" she says. "So the feedback has been very positive."

In the next issue, she plans to include a link to an online survey, which will help them update their subscription list and get feedback from teachers who use it.

At the very least, Koch and Junkert want to cover the main agricultural products in North Dakota.

"Some of the others, like dairy, may not be a huge industry on our state, yet it's a unique industry," Koch says. "I wanted kids to understand the whole agriculture cycle."

Other issues have focused on soil and water, biofuels and pulse crops. The next issue will focus on the history of North Dakota agriculture and will be release later this mont.

What the kids say

The real judges, of course, are the students. Ag Mag reaches more than 7,000 students in North Dakota three times each school year.

At Lake Agassiz Elementary School in Grand Forks, Deb Bohlman's fourth-graders talk about each new Ag Mag in class, and then the students get to take it home.

Alexis Makalaashes likes to colors in hers, though her favorite feature is more challenging.

"I like the crossword puzzle," she says.

Her classmate, Alexis Vargas, enjoys it, too.

"It's fun to read. It has activities that you can do," she says.

But do they learn from it? Asked about dairy products, they easily named milk, yogurt and cheese. They all knew that yogurt started with a dairy cow on a farm.

Then after that?

"It goes to a factory," Makalaashes says. "They mix it up into something, and then they put some other things in."

"They mix it up into the yogurt," Christian Schreiner says. "They put in either strawberries or blueberries to make it strawberry yogurt or blueberry yogurt."

After that?

"They put it in a little container and they seal it shut and then they mail it to the stores," Makalaashes says.

"Distribution," Vargas says, pointing to the depiction of the agricultural cycle in the Ag Mag. "Trucking, ships and selling."

And then?

"And then consumption," she reads. "You eat or use it."

"I like strawberry-banana yogurt," Makalaashes says.

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