By Olivia McClure & Karol Osborne, LSU AgCenter
CHASE, La. — Students who attended an LSU AgCenter field day geared toward youth in northeast Louisiana heard about how the agricultural sciences are important to both the economy and the environment.
More than 200 seventh- to 12-graders attended the fourth annual event on Sept. 27 at the AgCenter Sweet Potato Research Station in Chase. The field day featured four stations — focusing on poultry, wildlife and forest management, bees and sweet potatoes — as well as an LSU College of Agriculture recruiting table.
The event was designed to show the students the role agriculture plays in everyday activities. Many young people are unfamiliar with what happens to food before it arrives at grocery stores, said Jana Bennett, the AgCenter 4-H agent in Caldwell Parish who led the committee that organized the field day.
“Here, they are going out to the fields, seeing the equipment and getting a hands-on perspective of the industry,” Bennett said.
It is a misconception that children who have grown up in rural environments understand agriculture, said Phil Elzer, AgCenter associate vice president and director of the LSU School of Animal Sciences.
“It is really important for students to learn where their food comes from and how it is produced,” he said, adding that learning about different aspects of the industry also can introduce students to college majors and career paths they may want to pursue.
Tara Smith, director of the AgCenter Northeast Region, noted the field day highlighted a diverse array of commodities, including the No. 1 and No. 2 contributors to the Louisiana agricultural economy: forestry and poultry.
“This field day is a great opportunity to engage youth in real-world agriculture, focusing on key commodities that are economic drivers for this region and the state as a whole,” Smith said.
In northeast Louisiana, sweet potato production is an important economic force. Bruce Garner, AgCenter agent in West Carroll Parish, told the students about two-thirds of the 9,000 to 10,000 acres of sweet potatoes grown each year in Louisiana are in the northeastern parishes.
Bill McLemore, a research associate at the sweet potato station, showed equipment used to harvest potatoes. With guidance from sweet potato extension associate Myrl Sistrunk, the students then grabbed color-coded crates and gathered freshly harvested potatoes, testing their skills in field grading.
Afterward, employees from the Lamb Weston processing facility in Delhi provided samples of sweet potato fries for taste testing.
“I don’t really like regular fries, but I like these because they are sweet,” said Franklin Academy student Abigail Thomas.
Kerry Heafner, AgCenter horticulture agent, described the pollination process using a model of a flower.
“We need pollination to develop different varieties of sweet potato plants,” Heafner said. “We may be breeding for big potatoes or disease or pest resistance to produce a variety that consumers will want.”
Local apiarists Daniel Williamson, John Dupree and Jerry Robbins talked to students about producing honey and caring for beehives. Dennis Burns, AgCenter agent in Tensas Parish, explained the social structure of bees and their life cycles.
“A colony of bees is called a superorganism because the bees are all interconnected, with every bee having a job,” Burns said. “That’s how the colony survives.”
The bees fascinated Mangham High School student Adriana McGhee.
“The queen bee runs everything — she is the ruler,” McGhee said.
Jason Holmes, AgCenter agent in Union Parish, discussed the Louisiana poultry industry, which is concentrated in north-central parishes and adds about $1 billion to the state economy yearly. He said poultry farmers make use of technology to manage many factors — including temperature, humidity, lighting and nutrition — that must be strictly controlled so chickens can be healthy and put on the desired amount of weight.
Luke Stamper, AgCenter agent in Catahoula Parish, told about the close relationship of forests and wildlife. He said foresters and biologists work with landowners to achieve goals, whether to harvest timber for profit or to create a good environment for hunting.
Stamper talked about how animals hide in different habitats, a topic that interested Beekman Charter School sophomore Kane Williams, who is an avid duck hunter. It was the second year that Williams attended the field day.
“Last year I learned about LSU and the College of Agriculture, and this year I learned more about careers in wildlife management,” Williams said. “I hope to come back next year.”
Northeast 4-H Regional Teen Leadership member Bailey Willis said she thinks the field day will help develop future agriculture leaders.
“One of the biggest impacts for students is seeing how they can make a difference, whether in forestry or poultry, horticulture or growing crops, or any aspect of agriculture,” Willis said.
Educational and career opportunities in agriculture will be in the spotlight again on Nov. 8 at the Northeast Region Agriculture and Career Fair at the Winnsboro campus of Louisiana Delta Community College. The event will target college-bound students in grades 10 to 12 and is a collaborative effort of the community college, AgCenter and College of Agriculture.