DAVENPORT — At the beginning of the course, teacher Jay Solomonson asked his pupils a question: what do you think agriculture looks like?
He then asked them to sketch their ideas on paper. The students drew images faithful to how the public imagines farming: pigs, cornfields, mud, cattle.
Agriculture, of course, is all of those things. And much more.
At the Rock Island County Farm Bureau’s Summer Agriculture Institute — a four-day survey of farm-to-table agriculture in Rock Island County — Solomonson tried to broaden how his students understand ag.
“In Rock Island County, we have all sorts of diverse agriculture,” Solomonson said. “Agriculture is all of that stuff: processing, marketing, transportation and more. It’s not just food products.”
Solomonson’s students are themselves teachers at schools across the region. They enroll in the Summer Agriculture Institute to learn more about the ag industry and to pick up graduate school credits or continuing education hours.
The goal is not just to change how the teachers understand agriculture, but how their students understand it.
Over the course of the four-day program, the cohort — which had 10 participants this year — visited a variety of agriculture-related places across the Quad-Cities region: John Deere Harvester Works, the Fish Hatchery, Whitey’s production plan, the Niabi Zoo, Modern Woodmen Park and the Quad City Botanical Center, among others.
On Thursday, the final day of the program, participants visited an alpaca farm and Nahant Marsh Education Center, in Davenport, before finishing the day at the brewing facility at Bent River Brewing Company, in Rock Island.
The sites might not fit with popular understandings of agriculture. But in different ways, each represents a different branch of the ag tree.
“We try to hit urban things,” said Sheryl Solomonson, agriculture literacy coordinator at the Rock Island County Farm Bureau and spouse of Jay, the institute's instructor. She said the summer institute dates back to the 1990s and has evolved over the years. It now highlights the county’s unique urban connections to agriculture.
“The idea is to show teachers that, no matter what background you have, or whatever subject you teach, there’s a way to teach agriculture to your students,” Sheryl said. “They leave and they had no idea how much stuff they can incorporate without extra work.”
At the end of the four-day program, participants are asked to draft a lesson plan that incorporates what they learned into their real-life classrooms.
Some academic subjects have natural consonance with agriculture. Others require more creativity. Still, institute organizers emphasize that, once agriculture is understood broadly, its relevance appears everywhere.
And the goal is not to convince children to become farmers — “We know your kids won’t be farmers,” said Sheryl. Instead, she hopes young people will become educated, responsible consumers. "If it weren’t for agriculture, you wouldn't have your food, your clothes, your school bus, your parent’s car, maybe even your bike.”
Jennifer Schnell teaches students with significant needs at Black Hawk Center in East Moline, a job she called “the best in the world.” She joined the Summer Ag Institute after having participated in the program once before.
“I love watching nature. It’s so calming,” Schnell said. She was inspired by the cohort’s visit to a local maple tree farm. She hopes to hold a weeklong lesson on maple trees for her students, culminating in a feast of pancakes and maple syrup.
For Karen Carlson, a teacher at Churchill Junior High School, in Galesburg, the ag institute taught her the details of food practices she only knew of in broad strokes.
One of the week’s joys has been the conversations with her children at home. She’s been so busy touring exciting places across the area, she said, that her kids have become jealous.
And though the Summer Agriculture Institute is not strict about staying within Rock Island County — several of the stops were in neighboring counties — the curriculum highlights resources of the greater Quad-Cities area.
“All of the places we’re visiting are in our backyard,” Jay Solomonson said. “Agriculture is all around us.”