Students become farmers for a day
MOUNT ULLA — On two chilly mornings this week, elementary school students from across the county figured out which varieties of corn they would plant and whether their farms needed irrigation.
Many of them wearing straw hats, flannel shirts or overalls, the Academically and Intellectually Gifted (AIG) students huddled around picnic tables at Patterson Farms on Monday and Tuesday.
The children were tasked with using their problem-solving skills to make decisions that a Rowan County farmer would face when planting corn.
“You are in the real world,” said Renee Stepp, AIG lead teacher with the Rowan-Salisbury School System. “Farmers have to go through this every day.”
Michelle and Doug Patterson have worked since October with Joe Hampton, from the Piedmont Research Station, on this problem-based learning experience, Stepp said.
“It was the research station’s pleasure to work with Patterson Farms and the school system to put this together,” Hampton said. “We tried to make this as realistic as possible.”
He then explained the rules to dozens of fourth- and fifth-graders. They would split off into groups of eight to 10 people from the same school. They would then be given $4,000 in virtual startup money for their “farms” and tasked with making decisions in nine different areas.
“There are many ways you can grow corn,” Hampton said. “Today, there are about 700 different options you can take.”
Poring over their worksheets, the students’ first task was to choose a variety of corn to plant.
One group of Hanford-Dole students discussed going with the first variety, which was described as hardy but producing low yields.
Jordan Goodine, a student in the fifth grade, suggested using the third variety of corn that could yield a large crop — but requires a lot of care.
“The third one is too risky,” said Shawn Miller, also a fifth-grade student.
He argued for the second choice, a moderate-yield variety that would allow the use of a cheap herbicide to control weeds. Eventually, the group settled on that option and moved on to the next question.
The students also faced choices in the areas of nutrition and fertilization, planting dates, insecticide and fungicide, irrigation, insurance, financing and additional land rental.
Shawn said he thinks the project was hard, and there was a lot of teamwork involved in solving the problems.
“We have to do what we think is best for the crops,” Shawn said. “If we make a wrong decision and something goes wrong, we’ll get a bad yield. It’s basically like what farmers do.”
Jordan said he wants to thank the people who helped put together the project for them.
“I think it’s a great experience to be able to become a farmer,” Jordan said. “It helps us with business and how to save our money, like in the real world.”
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As they began their project, students got an up-close look at farm equipment like a combine and a corn planter, thanks to local farmer Johnny Moore.
Robin Daye, an AIG teacher at Hanford Dole, said the only time most of her students have been on a farm is when they have come to visit Patterson Farms in Mount Ulla on school trips.
To prepare, she said, they researched different aspects of farming and watched videos about corn production.
“They’re excited about this,” Daye said. “I think they’re going to learn a lot. It’s very different than what they’ve done before.”
For an imaginary fee of $100, the children could use up to two “consultants,” who would answer one question each.
Hampton encouraged them to think logically about the problem and make sure their decisions support each other.
While the students worked, Hampton said the Pattersons and the school system asked him to get involved with the project, and he was glad to do it. “It’s an opportunity to let young people see a glimpse of what it takes to bring their food to them,” he said.
To cover their virtual expenses, students could choose to take out a loan, which would be paid back with interest from the farm’s income. Marla Rayfield from Community One Bank helped them understand how that process works.
Rayfield explained that many farmers could not start or grow their operations without financing their equipment, seed or other supplies through a bank.
“The bank is extremely important to the farm,” she said, “and the farm is extremely important to the bank and to our families.”
While they tried to choose a herbicide, Hurley Elementary School students worried that using the cheaper Roundup option would damage their plants.
Fortunately, they had chosen the second variety of corn, which was labeled “RR.”
“‘RR’ is Roundup Resistance, so we’re good,” said fifth-grader Jonny Hassard.
Meanwhile, another Hurley group decided on a planting date.
April 1 has a 20 percent chance of cold injury and a 20 percent chance of pollination problems, the worksheet said. March 16 carries risks of 40 percent and 5 percent, and for April 15, those risks are 5 percent and 50 percent.
Kary Hales, a fourth-grader, said April 1 is the best option to avoid a problem.
“If you add it up, there’s less of a chance,” she said. “It’s 40 percent — 20 plus 20.”
Kary said she thinks the project was both fun and challenging.
“I think it’s a fun project to do, and I think it makes the brain work,” she said.
Jonny said it’s sometimes hard to come to an agreement about which solution to pick. When they can’t decide, he said, “majority rules.”
“I think it’s pretty fun,” he said. “All of us are trying to figure out what the best answer is to each question.”
Each choice carried a cost, and students had to keep an accurate log of their spending in a ledger, which acted as a tiebreaker.
At the end of each day, each group’s choices were run through a pre-determined scenario, which was set by farmers working with the Piedmont Research Station. The group that made the most money with its farm was declared the winner and given a trophy.
On Tuesday, the winning group came from China Grove Elementary School. Wednesday produced a four-way tie for first place, so a Shive Elementary School group won for keeping the most accurate ledger.
Michelle Patterson said she hopes to put together a similar project next year, and she already has some ideas for how to improve it.
“I think it’s been great success,” Patterson said. “It’s truly an experience where they use problem-based learning skills.”
Contact reporter Karissa Minn at 704-797-4222.