Western innovator: Advocate brings ag to classroom
Students don't know they're learning, 'because they're having fun'
By KELSEY THALHOFER
CORVALLIS, Ore. -- Tami Kerr holds more than a few professional titles in agriculture, but she still periodically retreats to her family's Tillamook dairy farm to wake up at 3:30 a.m. and do some "real, physical work."
"It keeps me grounded," Kerr said of the farm where her family still owns 500 Registered Holsteins and she owns 50. "It reminds me why I love what I do."
Having grown up on the farm, Kerr said she knew she wanted to work in agriculture and help promote the industry, but never knew what her dream job was until a newspaper classified advertisement caught her eye in 1999.
She interviewed and has worked ever since as executive director for Oregon Agriculture in the Classroom, providing agricultural literacy and education opportunities for students and teachers.
Others may know Kerr as a National Agriculture in the Classroom past president, Oregon Dairy Women past president and a board member for Oregon Women for Agriculture and Oregon Agfest. She admits that the roles keep her busy.
"People ask if I'm employed full time and I always kind of laugh," Kerr said in her office on the Oregon State University campus. "It's more than a 40-hour-a-week job." In addition to her executive director duties, Kerr kept a tight schedule of conference calls, travel and meetings during her time as 2011-12 NAITC president, a volunteer position.
As president, Kerr helped the program essentially double its funding by working with the National Institute of Food and Agriculture. She increased the team's trips to Washington, D.C.; the staff now meets with the USDA and other agriculture organizations twice a year. She also dealt with her program's transition to another agency within the USDA.
"Because of all the changes, she probably had to do more than anybody has ever had to do," current NAITC president Andy Guffey, who leads the state program in Arizona, said of Kerr. He noted that she stepped into her position four months early when the previous president encountered sudden health problems. Kerr "really didn't have a guideline to go by," he said.
Kerr has taken fewer phone calls since her term ended in June, but she now helps Guffey carry on the work she started during her 16-month term.
Agriculture in the Classroom focuses not on adding agriculture to school curriculums as its own subject, but rather works to integrate agriculture with the math, science and history that students are already learning.
Children might measure a pumpkin to find its diameter and circumference, or learn about nutrition and plant life through gardening. Churning butter could provide a memorable -- and edible -- lesson about life on the Oregon Trail.
"Students are learning but don't always know that they're learning, because they're having fun," Kerr said. "I talk about sense of self and sense of place a lot, because we live in an amazing state."
Kerr and her team develop lesson plans and classroom materials such as a full-color "Grown in Oregon" map that shows where the state's top commodities are grown. Kerr also visits schools to interact with kids and teach agriculture lessons.
"She jumps into everything," Darcy Kirk, education assistant, said of Kerr's various roles in her Oregon Agriculture in the Classroom job as well as the other groups she's involved in. "She's got her fingers in a lot of different programs, and she's always looking for ways to improve our program."
Kerr is currently finishing a school year calendar made from winning entries in the AITC agriculture art contest. Students in kindergarten through sixth grade were asked to draw something they'd learned about Oregon agriculture. The whimsical pictures show subjects such as berries, cows and tractors. About 10,000 calendars will be distributed to teachers and agriculture groups across the state.
Kerr said the upcoming calendar reception -- on Aug. 26 at 1 p.m. in the Jackman-Long Building on the Oregon State Fairgrounds in Salem -- is her favorite day of the year, because NAITC invites the winning artists and their teachers to share the inspiration and lesson behind the artwork.
"It's just fun to hear their personal stories," Kerr said.
Occupation: Executive Director of Oregon Agriculture in the Classroom
Family: Husband, Bryan
Hometown: Tillamook, Ore.
Education: Bachelor's degree, Oregon State University in agriculture business management with a minor in animal science