New Lessons from Agricultural Education

Small boy on a farm with a dog

Our world is facing a series of critical environmental issues including climate change, deforestation, and limited access to clean water. Environmental education is an important part of the solution to these problems as it can help the public better understand complicated environmental subjects and become engaged in solutions in their communities. One environmental topic that doesn’t always receive a lot of attention is agriculture, even though it intersects with nearly every environmental challenge we face. Farmers must adapt to shifting temperatures and weather patterns, available farmland is shrinking as urban areas expand, and resources must be carefully managed as we work to create equitable access to nutritious and culturally-appropriate food.

Little girl with an apple on her head

One way that educators can support sustainable agriculture is by promoting collaboration between environmental and agricultural education communities. Though both researchers and practitioners in these fields often operate separately, they have a lot to learn from one another. For example, agricultural educators have extensive knowledge related to making decisions about natural resource management in the context of running a business and meeting the needs of a growing population. This could be an important lesson for the environmental education world, which isn’t always as grounded in the realities of tradeoffs between long-term sustainability and more immediate outcomes like profit and crop yield. On the other hand, environmental educators tend to be good at connecting environmental themes across a range of different topics and at fostering deeper connections to nature among students. This could help agricultural educators in their efforts to move away from a vocational training mindset and towards broader public engagement.

Young boy watering plants

Another intersection between agricultural and environmental education is the difficulty they both experience in recruiting and retaining diverse educators and program participants. Neither field has always done a good job of including people of color, LGBTQ communities, people with disabilities, and other marginalized communities in their work. Sometimes this leads people to assume that those who are less visible in mainstream environmental and agricultural education organizations and programs don’t care about the issues or simply don’t know enough to realize that they should care. This is called “deficit thinking.” The deficit mindset is harmful because it focuses the blame on those who have been excluded instead of asking for environmental and agricultural conversations to be more inclusive.

A small girl hugging a pumpkin in a field

New research from North Carolina State University challenges deficit thinking, as it shows that demographic factors like race, gender, and household income are not good predictors of youth agricultural literacy. Agricultural literacy is the knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors of an individual as it relates to systems of food and fiber production. Young people of color, from low-income families, or from urban areas were just as interested and knowledgeable about agriculture as those we typically associate with agriculture - white youth, those with affluent parents, and those in rural areas. From this, educators should remember never to assume that people who are generally less visible in educational programming don’t care. Instead, we need to ensure our curricula, programming, and communication are relevant and engaging to communities who are currently underrepresented in mainstream environmental and agricultural education. We know this is an area in which we can do better. It may also be an opportunity for environmental and agricultural educators to join forces and collectively work towards avoiding deficit thinking and ensuring public engagement among diverse audiences.

Another interesting finding from this study was that kids who know farmers and share what they learn with their parents are more likely to care about and support agriculture. In fact, personally knowing a farmer was one of the most important things that predicted how much kids cared about agriculture. Interestingly, it didn’t matter how parents themselves thought and felt about agriculture, but just that they interacted regularly with their kids about a range of topics including schoolwork and extracurricular activities. Educators should take note – if we want students more engaged with agriculture, we should give kids more opportunities to interact directly with farmers and encourage them to share what they learn with their parents. NRF is proud to support several organizations working towards food sovereignty and youth agricultural literacy including Harlem Grown, Gardeneers, Detroit Hives, and Para La Naturaleza.