Interactive exhibits showcase importance of agriculture

By GEOFF PARKS

For the Capital Press

SALEM -- The Oregon Ag Fest completed its 23rd annual run last weekend at the Oregon State Fairgrounds, educating youngsters -- and others -- about the largest industry in the state.

With interactive exhibits and demonstrations, kids were encouraged to dig for potatoes, milk mechanical "cows," plant seedlings, ride ponies, watch chicks hatch, pet rabbits and, in general, learn the origins of their food and fiber.

Debbie Evans, a 12-year member of the Ag Fest board and employee of the Capital Press, said the biggest change in the event this year is growth. The event typically draws up to 17,000 visitors, and preliminary estimates put that figure much higher this year.

"The purpose of Ag Fest is to educate city kids about where their food comes from and about agriculture," Evans said. "For example, a little girl rode her first pony here today. A lot of the newcomers today came in asking where to go to dig potatoes and where the baby chicks were."

She said a "Welcome to Ag Fest Challenge Sheet" was distributed to visitors as a kind of fun test for kids to take while moving between -- and learning from -- the different exhibits and activities.

Questions included:

"How many servings of french fries will one acre of potatoes produce?" (Answer: 52,000.)

"How many eggs can a chicken lay in one day?" (Answer: One.)

"Though the challenge was meant for kids, a lot of parents were filling them out, too," Evans said.

Ag Fest Executive Director Michele Ruby said though the organization is made up of farmers and agri-business and land grant university representatives, "the key volunteers are all city people, and it takes 1,200 of them to do this each year.

"But everyone is driven by the same mission," she said, "which is put on an event meant to get people back to their roots. It's all interactive and all for kids."

She said Ag Fest's organizers "try to keep it fresh for people who come back each year" by adding new booths and new displays to appeal to kids and others about agriculture, its history and practices.

Darcy Kirk of Oregon State University's Ag in the Classroom Foundation said the goal of the non-profit is to "link ag to science and bring agriculture to life for everyone by teaching 'farm-to-fork' concepts."

Debbie Crocker of the Summer Ag Institute also played up her organization's and Ag Fest's agricultural education roles.

Summer Ag Institute, which runs June 20-25, is intended to "immerse in agricultural (learning) 25 Oregon teachers with non-ag backgrounds. This is telling teachers that they can use this learning to help teach agriculture and science," Crocker said.

As an additional example of Ag Fest's outreach to urbanites attending the event, Erin Rainey of the Oregon Association of Nurseries handed out rooted cuttings that recipients could pot and take home as an "interactive and educational activity."

Marianna Vaughn, original creator of the cardboard-and-art "village" that visitors to Ag Fest wander through and interact with, reiterated her original wish from 1987 when she first created it: "We wanted kids and families to experience something together and learn together."

According to the Oregon Business Plan, the agriculture, food processing and timber industries employ about 147,000 Oregonians, more than double the number employed by the high-technology industry.

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