CORVALLIS - Students in Oregon's primary and secondary schools get little if any exposure in the classroom to farming and how food gets to the dinner table, according to an Oregon State University survey of 510 teachers throughout the state.
The result could be a future citizenry that is poorly prepared to make wise decisions about agriculture and natural resource issues, according to Greg Perry, an agricultural economist with the OSU Agricultural Experiment Station and author of the survey report.
"Population growth is already causing conflicts for farmers, especially west of the Cascades," Perry said. "If population forecasts are accurate, the situation is only going to get worse, so it's important that Oregonians are reasonably literate about agriculture and the tradeoffs that may be necessary for farming to continue."
Teachers participating in the survey were asked about 19 agriculture and natural resource curriculums commonly available to them.
"We found that teaching materials that focused primarily on agriculture receive much less use than natural resource-based curriculums," Perry said. For example, 4 percent or fewer of the teachers used programs such as "Ag in the Classroom" and educational materials developed by 4-H and Future Farmers of America. On the other hand, Project WILD, which emphasizes wildlife, was used by 16 percent of the teachers.
"Comments by the survey participants indicate that many teachers believe the agriculture curriculums are too narrowly focused and do not deal with related natural resource and environmental issues," Perry said.
Teachers also noted the pressure to align their teaching materials with the state benchmarks for kindergarten through 12th grade. "Comments by numerous survey participants suggest that topics not directly covered on the state assessment tests, such as agriculture and natural resources, are being squeezed out," Perry said.
The lack of attention to agriculture in the classroom should not be interpreted as an indication that teachers believe farming is unimportant.
Actually, just the opposite is true, Perry pointed out.
The survey revealed that teachers have a high regard for farmers, ranking them third on a list of professions just below doctors (the teachers ranked their own profession the highest). In addition, teachers were given 12 terms, half of which were positive - including "steward of the land" - and half negative - "close minded" and "poorly educated."
Teachers overwhelmingly associated farmers with the positive terms.
"It was surprising that urban teachers had essentially the same attitude toward farmers as teachers in rural areas and small towns," Perry said.
Though not rated as highly as farmers, timber producers were also viewed positively with fewer than 25 percent of the teachers associating negative terms with timber producers.
"These results should put a damper on concerns that teachers will not take a balanced approach to teaching about agriculture and natural resource use," said Perry. "Indeed, these results suggest that if any bias exists in this instruction, it will be in favor of agriculture and natural resource use, not against it."
The survey was conducted to get a better understanding of how teaching materials about agriculture and natural resources are being used in Oregon's schools and how they might be improved. Even with better materials, placing them in the classroom won't be easy, Perry noted, because teachers are being asked to teach so many subjects that it's difficult to fit them all in.
"If we are going to get agriculture materials used in the classroom, they have to be comprehensive, unbiased and easy to use," he said. "And, perhaps most important, we have to show the direct connections between the agriculture curriculum and the state's educational benchmarks."
Copies of the survey report, "Results of the Oregon K-12 Teacher Survey on the Content and Use of Agricultural and Natural Resource Curriculum," Special Report 993, are available from Perry at the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics, 213 Ballard Extension Hall, OSU, Corvallis, OR 97331-3601.