By Karol Osborne, LSU AgCenter
WEST MONROE, La. – The LSU AgCenter Ag Alley and AgCenter Square exhibits gave area youth and adults a virtual farm experience, transforming the Ike Hamilton Expo Center into interactive learning stations about animals, agricultural crops, nutrition, gardening and honeybees.
Both events are part of the 36th annual North Louisiana Agri-Business Council Ag Expo, an agriculture education and industry-based exposition.
Ag Alley was held Jan. 11-12 for school groups and focused on where food comes from, then opened to the public for the weekend Ag Expo event Jan. 13-14.
“For the expo, we bring in extension agents to answer questions for the public and provide publications on agriculture production, gardening, nutrition, 4-H and many other topics,” said Richard Letlow, AgCenter agent in Morehouse and Ouachita parishes co-coordinator of the event.
“Ag Alley is a great opportunity to promote agricultural awareness and educate and expose people in the region to agriculture and the vital role it plays in our lives,” said AgCenter regional director Tara Smith.
“I couldn’t think of a better place to come spend some time because of the importance of agriculture to the entire state, and more specifically to our northeast region,” said state Rep. Charles R. “Bubba” Chaney, of Rayville. “The educational aspect is just tremendous.”
More than 10,000 visitors were expected during the two-day event.
The public was invited to get updates on how unmanned aerial vehicles and systems are used in agriculture at an unmanned aerial systems (UAS) seminar on Jan. 14, said Dennis Burns, AgCenter agent in Tensas Parish. Topics covered included crop scouting, data analysis, safe use of equipment and new Federal Aviation Administration rules.
“We want to give people a heads-up on how to get licensing to meet new FAA rules for UAS commercial use and talk about how they can use these devices now on their farms,” said AgCenter engineer Randy Price. “In the future, there will more developments, so farmers need to stay in tune with the rules.”
During the Ag Alley school days, more than 1,200 children from 33 area schools visited the first- and fourth-grade learning stations, said Markaye Russell, Ouachita Parish 4-H agent and co-coordinator of the event.
The hands-on experience is the biggest benefit, and the horticulture alley with honeybees is a new addition that has been a tremendous hit, Russell said.
“A lot of people don’t think about how important the bee industry is to producing our food. Without pollination, we wouldn’t have very much food. This year we wanted to concentrate on that,” Letlow said.
Amy Weeks, a presenter with the Hill Country Beekeepers Association, said when students are taught how important bees are in the environment, they have a more well-rounded way of thinking. “Everything in the environment is connected, and we are part of that connection,” she said.
Jean Gilstrap, a Louisiana Master Gardener presenter from Farmerville, talked about the parts of a flower and how important bees are for pollination. She explained how beekeepers from all over the South take their beehives to other states where the bee population has become depleted. “Without bees, we’re in trouble,” she said.
Always popular with the youth and adults, the mini farm targeted swine production as well as byproducts used in the medical field, Russell said.
Being more aware of where food comes from was the most beneficial learning experience for her students, said Caryn Oliver, Tallulah Academy fourth-grade teacher. “They knew ham comes from a pig, but they didn’t know where on the body of the pig it comes from, or that bacon comes from belly,” she said.
Another mini farm activity had students learning about how and why a pig’s ears are notched. Students used paper cut-outs to practice placement of notches used to properly identify pigs.
“My thought at first was that it would harm the animals, but they educate you that they’re doing it for a reason,” said Tensas Academy fourth-grade teacher Whitney Guthrie. “Whenever they have to give an animal medicine, it’s important to identify one animal out of a litter of eight or 12. They learn while they’re doing it, and then they can educate others as well.”
In the sweet potato alley, students practiced grading sweet potatoes and learned about how sweet potatoes are grown, their economic value and their use in many products.
“Many people don’t realize they are consuming products made from sweet potatoes,” said AgCenter extension associate Myrl Sistrunk. Because of their nutritive value, sweet potatoes are used in frozen and canned products, baby foods, beverages and even pet foods, he said.
Lenwil Elementary fourth-grader Lamarrieun Carraway learned about the three grades of sweet potatoes. “There are small potatoes which go into cans, there are large potatoes for fries and No. 1 potatoes, which are sold and packaged and put in stores,” he said.
Students got a bird’s eye view of what it’s like to operate a combine when they visited the demonstration model in the corn exhibit.
Because northeast Louisiana produces the most field corn in the state, students learned how the native annual grass plant is grown and processed for use in agriculture, said Franklin Parish agent Carol Pinnell-Alison. “We tried to give them an idea of the differences between sweet corn, popcorn and field corn and how they are used,” she said.
Ag Alley for first-graders focused on how foods get from the farm and go through processing to get to the table so they can be used to build a healthy plate, said AgCenter regional 4-H coordinator Terri Crawford.
“All of the first-grade alleys have some activity that they are actually doing, making or practicing, like handling the animals in the first-grade mini farm,” Crawford said.
First-graders milled rice by hand, prepared carrot seed strips for planting and milked a life-sized model of a cow while visiting stations like Sam’s Silo, Louella’s Dairy Farm, the Delta Farm and Farmer Pete’s Protein Place. At the Tiger Cafeteria, students learned how to use all the food groups to make a healthy plate, Crawford said.
Amy Irvine, a first-grade teacher from Morehouse Magnet School, said she would use the alley experiences in her classroom. “We have begun our science unit for the year, so we’re going to talk about plants and life cycles and about how these foods help our bodies when we get into the health section of the unit. It all flows together,” she said.
Fourth-graders ended their tour learning about beef production presented by volunteers from the Louisiana Cattlemen’s Association, and first-graders visited a mini zoo station provided by the Louisiana Purchase Gardens and Zoo.