Using sunflowers and honey to teach Ellis County children where their food comes
Almost all the elementary school students in Hays and St. Marys can now tell their families how to grow a sunflower seed, plant wheat or roast a pumpkin seed. This is because Stephanie Eckroat of the Ellis and Trego County Farm Bureau made it her mission to teach Ellis County kids about agriculture.
Two years ago, Eckroat, who serves as the Kansas Farm Bureau County Coordinator, visited 13 classrooms each month and taught more than 200 children about raising animals, mending fences and growing vegetables. But last year, when COVID-19 hit, she needed to change her paradigm — she could no longer visit the children in their elementary school classrooms.
Because the program was so successful, she did not want to give it up. That is when she and her intern, Fort Hays State University student, Sathena Scarborough, came up with a plan — to make videos.
The two, along with Eckroat's husband and her son, started filming videos about farm life and agriculture for the children. Along with the video, they would have an activity and treat.
"We did funny things at the end of each video," Eckroat said. "We had bloopers, and the kids loved them."
Eckroat and Scarborough visited sale barns, stables, bee farms and vegetable gardens. And the children went along with them as they watched the classroom screen. When they taught the students about growing wheat, they made bread and had each teacher hand out fortune cookies.
"It was a challenge finding a snack for that many children that was individually wrapped and that didn’t cost a fortune," Eckroat said. "The honey sticks cost the most, but the kids loved them."
For the past four weeks, the two, along with volunteers from Fort Hays, visited each school and taught the children about sunflowers in-person for the first time this year. Each student planted their own sunflower to take home and was given a SunButter snack — courtesy of the SunButter company out of Fargo, ND. The program, which had expanded to 30 classrooms and more than 500 students, ended on Wednesday.
"We had a learning segment, an activity, and we would give them a snack," Eckroat said. "I had teachers come to the house and do recipes (on video tape for the kids). We emphasized where the food came from."
Eckroat won the New Horizon Award from Kansas Farm Bureau. But that was nothing compared to the smiles she saw on each child's face when she and Scarborough showed up to teach each class in person this spring.
What also amazed Eckroat was the dedication and creativity of many of the teachers. Some of them created vocabulary words from the worksheets, others started gardens. One teacher helped the children grow wheat outside the school.
Scarborough, who grew up on a farm in Nebraska, was part of the Collegiate Farm Bureau chapter and Sigma Alpha, a professional agriculture sorority, at Fort Hays. She graduated this spring. Next year's intern is from nearby Oakley.
Agriculture in the Classroom is a nationwide program sponsored by the American Farm Bureau Federation. It is designed to improve agricultural literacy for both students and teachers.
Along with a grant from the Kansas Farm Bureau, Eckroat received coloring books from John Deere/Carrico Implement.
"Each student got a coloring book. At the back of the coloring book was a certificate saying they completed the course," Eckroat said. "I wanted them to feel like they were special."