To the rural farming regions of central Oregon, ag education is as fundamental as math and reading. That’s one reason community members came together to fund an innovative education program that sent third-graders to college.

Oregon State University Extension Service partnered with Oregon Wheat Growers League members from Jefferson, Crook and Deschutes counties to create a unit on producing and processing wheat for more than 100 OSU Extension 4-H members at Metolius Elementary School in Jefferson County in 2017 and 2018

In four short lessons, kids learned about wheat germination, growth, harvest and the many uses of the crop. Students ground wheat with small hand mills or a mortar and pestle, then mixed up dough, flattened it into flour tortillas, and sampled the end product.

The program culminated in a field trip to Oregon State University, where kids toured the campus and livestock barns. Graduate students led hands-on classes on planting, grafting and grinding wheat into flour.

Their hands sticky with dough, kids probed the differences in texture between hard and soft wheat and tested the dough’s elasticity.

“You should have seen their eyes,” said Jon Gandy, 4-H program educator in Jefferson County.

Students also planted seeds in petri dishes to take home.

“The best part was going to the barns to see the cows,” said 11-year-old Bentley Stockton. “It was so cool to see how the college students got to sleep in the barn and watch the cows all night from the window when they started calving.”

Interacting with college students and sitting in college classrooms was one of the biggest lessons, said teacher Elizabeth Bare.

“This is the best part of our jobs the whole year. We get to open minds to what they could do or become in the future,” Bare said.

“We visit large auditoriums on campus and actually sit in the seats and pretend we are college students. For one day our kids get to see what we talk about every day in class — work hard and you can become anything you want to be or go anywhere you want to go.”

For the community members and growers who donated auction items and money to fund the program, agriculture education is about sustaining a way of life.

“It’s almost self-preservation — so people get the right facts about where their food and fiber come from and how it’s produced,” said Kurt Feigner, former Central Oregon Counties president of the Oregon Wheat Growers League.

“Kids will see there are a lot of ag job opportunities that don’t have anything to do with the day-to-day activities on the farm,” Feigner said. “Drone technology, research, machinery, manufacturing — it all touches agriculture.”

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