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Food doesn't magically appear in boxes

October 20, 2009|By JEFF SEMLER

Last week, Beth Nichols, 4-H educator, ag tech Doug Price, myself and several 4-H and FFA volunteers were engaged in a project called "Kids Growing with Grains."

Don't let the title fool you; this program is aimed squarely at elementary- age youngsters to reunite them with where their food comes from. It's what I like to call agriculture literacy.

Why is it important to know where your food comes from? Well, that's an easy one to answer. Ignorance is far from bliss. Knowing where your food comes from helps you make informed decisions when it comes to things like responsible land use and zoning.

Cereal is made from grains like wheat, corn, oats and barley that grow from the soil. They don't just magically appear in a cardboard box.

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The students learned that wheat is planted in the fall and harvested in July, nearly eight months later. In the intervening months, you don't just put your feet up and hope for the best. You monitor the crop for weeds, insect damage and fungus infections. If any of those are found, you need to treat the crop. You also need to monitor the fertility and you need to feed the crop in a timely manner.

Some of the skeptics out there are probably thinking, here we go, pouring on the chemicals. Not true. Fields are monitored and only treated when needed. But let's look at it in another way. Many people see nothing wrong with treating their front lawns for weeds, but don't want farmers spraying for weeds. Farmers are producing food. I don't think your front lawn is feeding anyone.

You might find this amusing, as well, but there are many people who think eggs come from cartons and milk comes from plastic jugs. You laugh, but a colleague of mine went to a school and the teacher told the students, "Mr. Williams is here today to teach us about farming. Boys and girls, did you know eggs used to come from chickens before we started making them in factories?"

Folks, this came from a person who received a degree in elementary education from a distinguished university. She is not dumb, just uninformed.

At the "Kids Growing with Grains" workshop, I typically man the animal station and this year was no different. Animals are always popular. What's not to love about a cute lamb, an ornery goat or an adorable calf? I enjoy the questions, and believe me, they ask a lot of them. It's always interesting when they find out all of the animals I mentioned have four compartments in their stomachs and no top teeth in the front. I tell them they are what are known as cud chewers, meaning they are able to digest fibrous materials like cornstalks, grass, soy hauls and wheat mids. They eat their feed, swallow it, regurgitate it and rechew it.

This allows for the digestion of fibrous plants. It is a great design, and thus gallons of milk and pounds of meat and wool are produced by animals that chew their cud.

Many people are also surprised to learn that neither chickens nor pigs are vegetarians. They are omnivores, which means they eat meat and plants. Albeit the meat many chickens eat is in the form of worms and insects, I have seen a hen eat a baby mouse. Pigs left to their own devices love to eat moles and voles, as well as many other vermin, including snakes.

We cover lots of information. However, this space is limited, so I have just hit some of the highlights. So the next time you pick up a dozen eggs, a pound of ground beef, a gallon of milk or a loaf of bread, just remember there has been a lot of work done in the field to get it to you.

Jeff Semler is an Extension educator, specializing in agriculture and natural resources, for the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension. He is based in Washington County. He can be reached weekdays by telephone at 301-791-1404, ext. 25, or by e-mail at jsemler@umd.edu

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