Bringing Ag and Conservation to the Classroom

Where does your food come from? Many students across Indiana give the answer “the grocery store.” Although this is often true, the grocery store is not the starting place of our food. Farm Bureau’s Agriculture in the Classroom Program works with kids around Indiana teaching them about the origins of their food and why farmers are important. Through this program, Farm Bureau holds summer workshops for teachers and volunteers giving them ideas about how to teach agriculture in their hometown school systems.

The Allen County Soil and Water Conservation District had the opportunity to participate and lead a couple of sessions in one of the Agriculture in the Classroom workshops on June 1st at Huntington University. Mike Werling, a farmer and part time employee with the Allen County SWCD, lead a workshop on managing erosion. Erosion is a menace that has plagued agriculture for millennia. Werling used the slake test, a homemade rainfall simulator, and a purchased rainfall simulator to demonstrate different ways teachers can educate about soil health and erosion control in their own classroom.

The slake test shows the structural difference between soil in a no-till situation and soil in a tillage situation. It utilizes two class cylinders filled with water. Mesh wiring drapes like a hammock from the top of the cylinders and submerges in the water. For this demonstration, you must have two different dried peds of soil. One ped should be from a no-till field and the other from a tilled field. When the aggregates are submerged into the water and placed on the mesh wiring, the audience can see the difference between the tilled soil and the soil from a no-till field. The no-till ped will hold together, but the soil from the tilled field will break apart easily in the cylinder. Check out this video of a slake test!

The homemade rainfall simulator can be made out of 3 plastic, two-liter bottles with 1/3 of the plastic cut out of the side. One of the bottles should contain nothing but bare soil. The second bottle should be filled with soil, but covered with residue like straw, leaves, or sticks. The third bottle should contain growing cover crops (clover, annual rye, cereal rye, oats, etc). Water is then poured over the two-liter bottles. The bottle with bare soil will lose the largest amount of soil to erosion, the soil with a residue will lose significantly less soil because of the residue, and the cover crop soil will lose the least amount of soil when “rain” is introduced to it. Check out this video of a two-liter bottle simulator!

The purchased rainfall simulator works very similarly to the homemade version. Watch this video to see how a rainfall simulator works!

The Allen SWCD also shared a lesson on watersheds and water quality. Joelle Neff used an Enviroscape to teach about how water moves downhill and picks up pollutants in a watershed. Neff also taught a lesson called “Growing with Water” which uses data collected from the Water Quality Initiative Program to discuss why pollutants have varying impacts at different times in the year.

An Enviroscape is a model of a watershed landscape that funnels water into the landscape’s reservoir. The model has a farm, factory, nature preserve, golf course, construction site, neighborhood, water treatment facility, roads, and ditches. Pollutants such as fertilizers, pesticides, human and animal waste, oil, road salt, etc are introduced to the landscape. Simulated rain is then applied to the landscape. Students are able to see all the pollutants that have entered the reservoir after the rain. This tool has fairly easy clean up. You can remove the plug in the reservoir to drain water into the basin below.

Tracking sheet on which students can match the colored paper to its designated attribute. The colored pieces of paper represent the percentage of time the attributes are too high or too low.

Like mentioned earlier, “Growing with Water” uses data collected from the Fort Wayne Water Quality Initiative Program which has been collecting water samples weekly in Northeast Indiana and Northwest Ohio since 2002. Check with your local Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) to see if collect water samples in your area. “Growing with Water” teaches students about the quality of water in their area and the different pollutants that can impact their water systems. Growing with Water shows the variances of water quality in different seasons. Split your class into three different groups: spring, summer, and fall. Have each group come up with a list of what is happening in agriculture and with the weather in their season. Then, provide students a tracking sheet with the percentage of time that the pollutants were higher than they should have been. Have the students work in their groups to make hypotheses about reasoning for the pollutant levels based off what is happening in their season.

If you would like to use any of these demonstrations to teach in your classroom, give the Allen County SWCD a call at 260-484-5848 ext. 3.

Are You Smarter than a 1st Grader?

Soil testing is a valuable way for farmers, gardeners, and those with lawns to know what nutrients are already available in their soil, as well as what nutrients should be added. Not knowing what is already available in your soil, makes it easy to over-apply or under-apply fertilizers. Over application can cause negative impacts on water quality if runoff transfers the excess nutrients to waterways. Having too few nutrients in your soil can impede plant growth.

No matter what you’re growing, getting a soil test is important!

On Friday, May 14th, the Allen County SWCD and Purdue Extension partnered to teach soil testing to the first grade students at Washington Elementary School in downtown Fort Wayne. The students did an excellent job listening!

James Wolff from Purdue Extension and Joelle Neff & Ben Taylor from the Allen County SWCD demonstrating soil testing and soil textures to the 1st grad class at Washington Elementary School.

The class learned the importance of getting a soil test. Their faces lit up as they answered questions about how we can protect our water systems by keeping excess nutrients out of them. Excitement filled the school grounds as teachers, students and agency staff chose different locations to collect soil samples from. Each student was able to pick a spot from which to collect a sample.

Soil testing in groups around Washington Elementary School’s property.

The first graders not only learned about soil testing, but they also learned about the different textures of soil. The students got to feel examples of sand, silt, and clay, as well as play a game that taught them the different properties of these textures. Sand is the largest particle with lots of surface area. It feels course when rubbed between your fingers. It allows for good drainage and doesn’t hold water or nutrients very well. Silt is the medium-sized particle. It feels smooth like baking flour when wet. It doesn’t stick together, so it still has good drainage, but it is small enough to hold water and nutrients. Clay is the smallest soil texture. It sticks together when wet giving it a sticky texture. Much of the soil in Northeast Indiana has a heavy clay content. Clay does not drain water easily, sometimes remaining waterlogged and causing root rot in plants. On the other hand, clay soils are excellent at holding nutrients.

If you knew all this, congrats! You are smarter than a first grader, but don’t stop there! Keep learning about Conservation Practices like soil testing.

This demonstration was sponsored by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) through our Urban and Small Farms Program. The USDA is an equal opportunity provider and employer.

2020 River Boat Tours Prove to Be Successful

This fall, the Allen County SWCD and the Maumee Watershed Alliance had numerous opportunities to give tours of Fort Wayne’s three rivers – the St. Mary’s, the St. Joseph’s, and the Maumee. These tours were designed to educate both farmers and urbanites on the importance of water quality and the part everyone plays in maintaining and improving the water quality around Allen County. Greg Lake, the Allen Co. SWCD Director, and Dan Wire, an Associate SWCD Board Member and Maumee Watershed Alliance Member, expressed how important it is to get people on the water. According to Dan Wire, “When people get on the river, they realize it’s not as bad as they thought.” Riding the river also gives an understanding of the programs already in place to improve and maintain water quality and the opportunities to get involved.

The Allen County SWCD even had the chance to give a tour to both Tom Bechman, the editor for the Indiana Prairie Farmer, and Jerry Raynor, the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) State Conservationist. Dan Wire and Greg Lake shared about the programs that improve water quality locally, and Jerry Raynor spoke about what is happening statewide in the promotion of conservation. Tom Bechman wrote several stories about his trip to Allen County and published them in the October 2020 issue of the Indiana Prairie Farmer. Now the message of water quality is being spread across Indiana.

Take a look at these articles written by Tom Bechman from his visit to Allen County!

https://www.farmprogress.com/conservation/ag-urban-groups-both-need-clean-water

https://www.farmprogress.com/conservation/what-water-monitoring-project-reveals-about-water-quality

https://www.farmprogress.com/conservation/science-behind-stream-monitoring-water-quality

https://www.farmprogress.com/commentary/huntington-university-turns-out-quality-ag-graduates

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