Agriculture in the Classroom (12/6/2019)

I thought I knew a good bit about the Agriculture in the Classroom program. However, when I received this manuscript (that I requested from our guest columnist), I quickly realized I didn’t know that much. Our guest columnist is Dr. Debra Spielmaker from Utah State University. In addition to being a professor at Utah State, she is Team Leader for the National Center for Agricultural Literacy. So, take it away Dr. Spielmaker.

History of Agriculture in the Classroom

Throughout much of the history of the United States, agriculture and education have been closely related. During the decades when most Americans lived on farms or in small towns, students often did farm chores before and after school. Indeed, the school year was determined by planting, cultivating, and harvesting schedules. Old school books are full of agricultural references and examples because farming and farm animals were a familiar part of nearly every child’s life (History of Agriculture in the Classroom, 2019).

Improved farm technologies and mechanization in the 20th century resulted in greater yields and lower commodity prices. Many left rural areas to pursue employment in the cities. Farmers, educators, and policymakers became concerned about the numbers of those remaining on farms and “city folk” that might forget about where their food and fiber was produced. As a result, corn and tomato growing clubs, which evolved into additional 4-H agricultural clubs (4-H History, 2019), emerged. Some of these concerned educators with the support of agricultural organizations began a campaign to include agriculture as an occupational specialty that, at the very least, should be taught as a vocation in secondary schools. This movement resulted in the development of “vocational” or secondary school-based agricultural education programs (1917) and the Future Farmers of America (1928). However, this meant that a growing American population, not enrolling in vocational agriculture courses, knew less about agriculture and how agriculture met their basic needs for food, clothing, and shelter.

During the 1960s and 1970s, agricultural organizations and agricultural educators began to realize the need for increasing agricultural knowledge that would hopefully, result in greater numbers of students pursuing a career in agriculture (not necessarily on the farm) and create a citizenry that would make informed policy decisions impacting agricultural production and processing. Several state Farm Bureau’s and commodity organizations began to develop educational programs and farm tours for elementary age youth. These organizations began to use the term “agricultural literacy” to capture their observation of what they considered an agriculturally illiterate population (Frick, Kahler & Miller, 1991).

The success of these “agricultural literacy” programs was shared with legislators and in 1981 the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) invited representatives of agricultural organizations and educators to a meeting in Washington, D.C. to discuss agricultural literacy programming. A national task force was selected from this group. Fifty-three agricultural and educational organizations were represented, including the Agriculture Council of America, American Agriculture Movement, American Egg Board, American Farm Bureau Federation, Future Farmers of America, Illinois Council on Economic Education, National Association of Elementary School Principals, National Dairy Council, National Farm Organization, National Farmers Union, National Live Stock and Meat Board, State Departments of Agriculture, State Departments of Education, Wheat Industry Council, Women for Agriculture, and the Women in Farm Economics organization. (Adelhardt, 2006)

This task force recommended that the USDA help build state programs to promote agricultural literacy. They also recommend that funding be provided for coordinating conferences to build state program capacity. They outlined three specific goals:

1.       Create a national task force to develop guidelines for the preparation of educational materials; develop a model plan for establishing State Action Groups; and, plan what the national group should undertake next.

2.       Establish a central clearinghouse for information about programs and materials being developed around the country.

3.       Conduct a second workshop within one year to review progress on the initial (Adelhardt, 2006, p. 3).

The task force began using the name “Agriculture in the Classroom” to describe their effort. At the task force meeting in 1982 it was determined that all goals of Agriculture in the Classroom (AITC) Task Force had been achieved. Subsequently, the task force, with the support of 17 State Action Groups, developed a Model State Action Plan (Figure 1). During this meeting it was determined that a newsletter, sharing state success stories, should be developed and distributed. With the aid of USDA staff, a national newsletter was published and sent to state contacts and interested stakeholders in 1982.

Figure 1


The task force also recommended that the USDA support and organize, with state leaders, conferences to discuss program development. USDA hosted three regional AITC meetings in 1982 to organize state AITC programs. “The meetings were conducted in Lincoln, Nebraska; Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; and Portland, Oregon. They drew a total of 356 participants representing 27 states. Regional meetings in the southwest and southeast regions were conducted in July and August 1983. Interested groups in each state responded by creating a state task force. From these five meetings, 35 programs were established.” (Adelhardt, 2006, p. 8)

On Ag Day, March 21, 1983, Secretary Block along with the Secretary of Education, T. H. Bell, made a “Declaration of Principle” (Figure 2) with the signatures of seven former Secretaries of Agriculture (Figure 3). The Declaration outlined the purpose of the Agriculture in the Classroom (AITC) program. The same day a petition was mailed to all 50 governors explaining the project and asking them to select an entity in their state where an Agriculture in the Classroom program could be formally housed and developed. Most governors responded by selecting either a state Farm Bureau (where many programs had been operating), their state department of agriculture, or the state extension program at the land grant university. State programs were developed throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s, with some developing private foundations or associations. As the Declaration of Principle did not come with funding, state program leaders developed their programs with the support of state agricultural organizations, businesses, educational organizations, state governments, and dedicated volunteers. (Adelhardt, 2006)

Figure 2
Figure 3


In 1988 the National Research Council (NRC) published Understanding Agriculture: New Direc­tions for Education, adding support to the development and expansion of AITC programs. The second chapter opens with this statement, “Agriculture—broadly defined—is too important a topic to be taught only to the relatively small percentage of students considering careers in agriculture and pursuing vocational agriculture studies” (National Research Council, 1988, p. 8). The committee posited that “most Americans know little about agriculture,” (p. 9) and that research in this area was “frag­mented, frequently outdated, usually only farm-oriented, and often negative or condescending in tone” (p. 9). The NRC recom­mended that all K-12 students receive some instruction about ag­riculture using curriculum integra­tion as an approach, noting that it would be easier to incorporate ag­riculture into existing curriculum than to make additional demands on instructional time with separate agricultural lessons. They also recommended that education lead­ers support the implementation of agricultural concepts into the core academic areas of science, history, economics, and health.

These recommendations had already been heeded by state AITC organizations as they had been developing agricultural education resources “about” agriculture, leaving the content needed to be “in” an agricultural career to vocational or secondary school-based agricultural education programs since 1981.

Figure 4 All students can benefit from AITC programs.
In 1996 the AITC program at USDA left the “Office of the Secretary” joined the Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service (CSREES) department. This provided a more stable home for the program along with some ongoing, but discretionary, funding for national efforts. The USDA funding paid for a website, a national conference, regional conferences, teacher awards, the national newsletter, and educator tradeshows. State programs continued to raise their own funds for programming. On July 12, 1997 the Agriculture in the Classroom Consortium, made up of all state AITC contacts, was established to provide leadership and a professional network for state Agriculture in the Classroom programs.

The USDA reorganized in 2009 and many programs, including AITC, became part of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture. With this reorganization came some uncertainties about funding. The AITC Consortium reorganized in 2012 as the National Agriculture in the Classroom Organization (NAITCO), using the name commonly used by stakeholders. NAITCO works with USDA and other stakeholders to ensure the continued growth of the state AITC programs. Today, some state programs are all volunteer while others have funding for several paid staff. Most programs operate on private funds and grants. State programs continue to work with state agricultural organizations and hundreds of volunteers annually (State Programs, 2019).

In 2013 the mission and vision of the National Agriculture in the Classroom Organization was updated. The mission is to “increase agricultural literacy through K-12 education.” The Organization defines an agriculturally literate person “as one who understands and can communicate the source and value of agriculture as it affects our quality of life” and the vision is that “agriculture is valued by all” (About Agriculture in the Classroom, para. 2, 2019).

In 2013 NAITCO, with funding from USDA, supported the development of the National Center for Agricultural Literacy (NCAL). The Center was housed at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln until 2016 then moved to Utah State University. NCAL supports the work of NAITCO by developing instructional resources, conducing agricultural literacy research, and by providing state programs with technical services, including professional development, to increase state program capacity.

“AITC programs began with resources such as coloring books and fact sheets, today’s network of state programs has successfully become a key player in providing quality classroom resources and in the delivery of teacher professional development. In most states, key resources align with state academic standards and pre- and in-service programs have become an invaluable tool in helping teachers become more comfortable with the subject of agriculture” (History of Agriculture in the Classroom, 2019, para. 9). Today nearly all states use and share with educators the National Agricultural Literacy Curriculum Matrix database of resources which includes hundreds of lessons plans and companion resources to support teaching and learning in classrooms nationwide. These resources have been aligned with the National Agricultural Literacy Outcomes (Spielmaker & Leising, 2013), and national education standards.

The strength of Agriculture in the Classroom programs comes from its grassroot beginnings. These interested stakeholders continue to influence its growth today. Programs have advanced because of a cooperative spirit among the state program professionals and stakeholders. Educators have also played a huge role in program development and delivery. Using agriculture as a context for teaching school subjects has been embraced by thousands of teachers who participate in AITC programs (State Programs, 2019). Research measuring student agricultural literacy, academic achievement, and program effectiveness also continues to grow.

Currently, agricultural education is experiencing a renaissance—people want to know more about how and where their food is produced. They want to “know the farmer,” promote healthy eating, and better understand global sustainability and environmental stewardship. This interest and AITC programming provide educators with the resources they need to educate students about who produces their food, where it comes from, how it is processed, the national value, and how agriculture will respond sustainably to meet a growing populations demand to meet their basic needs impacting their quality of life.

An endnote from the Editor: Thank you Dr. Spielmaker for educating us. I would encourage all teachers to check out the links contained in this column. You will find useful teaching resources that could be adapted to your classroom.


4-H History (2019). Retrieved from

Adelhardt, L. (2006). Agriculture in the Classroom, 1981-2006. Berlin, MD: Owl Creek Consulting. Retrieved from

Frick, M. J., Kahler, A. A., & Miller, W. W. (1991). A definition and the concepts of agricultural literacy. Journal of Agricultural Education32(2), 49-57.

History of Agriculture in the Classroom. (2019). Retrieved from

National Research Council (1988). Understanding agriculture: New direc­tions for education. Wash­ington, DC: The National Academies Press. Re­trieved from https://doi. org/10.17226/766.

Spielmaker, D. M., & Leising, J. G. (2013). National agricultural literacy out­comes. Logan, UT: Utah State University, School of Applied Sciences &Technology. Retrieved from

State Programs. (2019). Retrieved from