I'm going up the country, Tell me do you want to go,
I'm going someplace I've never been before
--Canned Heat, American rock band, 1968
The high school field-trippers who rushed past me onto the charter bus probably never heard that wonderful little chunk of rock music's psychedelic era, but it's a perfect theme song for these city kids from Portland headed out on a tour of several Willamette Valley farms.
The song is an upbeat, optimistic tune about leaving the city to discover new experiences in the countryside. Although it was recorded long before any of these teens were born, it seemed to fit their mood perfectly as they chattered excitedly and appeared playfully impatient to begin their rural outing.
The students, from Portland's James Madison High School, were participating in an ongoing series of "agriculture tours" made possible through the efforts of the school's principal, Ron Hudson, and a partnership of Oregon agricultural organizations and institutions, including the College of Agricultural Sciences at Oregon State University.
I accompanied the students on a recent foray from the heart of the Portland metropolitan area to the small-town country charm of Perrydale, Oregon.
It's both a curious and humorous thing to watch a bunch of city kids troop around down on the farm, their teacher-chaperones urging on the stragglers. The kids reacted with comical disgust at the odor of the hog pen, throwing their arms over their faces and emitting a loud "eeewwwwwww." One of them wanted to know if a female hog with piglets is called a cow or a sow.
Another student reacted with a broad grin and hearty laugh at a calf's willingness to suck his finger as though it were a cow's teat.
The students looked on with awe and revulsion as they watched a newborn calf struggle to stand up, the afterbirth from the calving lying just a few feet away in a corner of the pen. They stared at the unfamiliar shapes and dimensions of combines, tractors and other farm equipment as farm owners explained what the contraptions are used for.
Beyond their entertainment value (which, judging from the students' reactions, is substantial), these agriculture tours offer some very important opportunities to students.
"They get to see where food comes from," said Hudson. "That's important because many young people who have lived all their lives in the city often think food just comes from the supermarket."
Also, the field trips are valuable because any out-of-class school experience has the potential to reach or move a student in a special way.
"I happen to believe that most students will remember what they did in a special project or field trip long after they forget the names of most of their teachers," said Hudson.
The seed of the idea for agricultural field trips at Madison High School was planted when Hudson saw a 1995 newspaper story about OSU's desire to have a greater presence in the Portland area and to find opportunities to inform city residents about the university's agricultural programs and the value of agriculture to the state of Oregon and the city of Portland.
"That story got me thinking about establishing some kind of connection between our school and OSU that would help us with a school-to-career initiative we were starting at our high school at that time," Hudson said.
He began making phone calls and contacts that led to new partnerships and opportunities for Madison High students.
"We started with Oregon State University and the Oregon Agri-Business Council, and later the Oregon Farm Bureau and several Future Farmers of America chapters in the area around Portland also got involved," Hudson said.
The agriculture tours began a short time later.
"OSU doesn't provide funding for the tours, but the College of Agricultural Sciences' Ambassadors for Agriculture, Forestry and Natural Resources do a wonderful job of preparing the kids for what they will see on the tours," said Hudson.
The Ambassadors for Agriculture, Forestry and Natural Resources are 10 students who travel to high schools throughout the state making presentations about agriculture and forestry and career opportunities in agriculture, agribusiness and the forestry industry. During a trip to Madison High earlier this year, the ambassadors visited 36 classrooms in one day.
OSU's College of Agricultural Sciences has created other opportunities for Madison High School faculty and students. Small groups of Madison High students have visited the OSU campus for day-long agribusiness and forestry careers workshops. Students have visited OSU's North Willamette Research and Extension Center near Aurora, where scientists explained agricultural research projects and led tours. And Madison teachers, along with school teachers throughout Oregon, have been invited to the OSU campus to participate in the Summer Agriculture Institute, a week-long course they can take for graduate credit. The summer institute offers teachers the opportunity to visit working farms and agricultural industry facilities. In addition, teachers and administrators from Madison High and other schools have participated in annual summer tours to OSU branch agricultural experiment stations around Oregon.
"These programs are an important part of our job," said Kelvin Koong, an associate dean of the OSU College of Agricultural Sciences. "The staff and administration in our college feel strongly that we at OSU, as a statewide educational institution, have an obligation to inform all citizens, including school-age children, about agriculture, the food system and the environment."
Beyond introducing students to career opportunities in agriculture, agri-business and forestry, the activities dovetail with the emphasis on natural resources and environmental issues in the Madison High School curriculum.
"Our school has been designated as an academy within the Portland School District and offers an emphasis in natural resource and environmental studies," said Hudson. "Students from throughout the district can enroll here, if they choose, to take those courses. Some of the faculty here have found the agriculture tours to be a great way to help students connect the real world with natural resource and environmental topics they talk about in class."
Chris Breil, who teaches literature of the Pacific Northwest at Madison High, said the tours have been springboards to lively classroom discussions about how natural resources are used and managed by society, and about the ethics of animal use.
"The tours enable the kids to get a closer look at issues covered in class," said Breil. "After the tour, students have a better idea of the tradeoffs between how society chooses to manage a resource and how that affects the environment."
Like Hudson, Breil says some students have become so disconnected from the natural cycle that they don't have any idea where food comes from and have little knowledge of rural lifestyle and culture.
"It's really important for urban kids to start re-establishing that connection," said Breil. "It's important that they understand food doesn't magically appear in supermarkets, that there are real people who are engaged in providing those commodities, and that these rural people are very much like urban people, with similar concerns."
For biology teacher Winnie Yan, the value is that her students get hands-on experience.
"The most important part of the tours for my students is that they get to go out and see the things we talk about in class," she said. "It's one thing to read books, listen to lectures and take notes, but the opportunity to reach out and touch something we talk about in class is really meaningful."
In her biology course, Yan covers a broad range of topics from plant anatomy to the characteristics of vertebrates and the gestation periods of mammals. The agriculture tours complement all these areas of study, said Yan, because students get the chance to see all kinds of crops growing in the field, get to see and touch many kinds of farm animals, and sometimes get to watch animals being born.
"The tours also help students understand food processing and why it's important," said Yan. "Students get the idea of how a crop is taken out of the field and ends up as cereal in a bowl on the kitchen table."
Many students who go on the agriculture tours seem to react strongest to animals they see on the farm. Jennifer Ashkins, now graduated from Madison High, liked the large dairy farm she visited best. Ashkins went on tours in her junior and senior years.
"It was really neat to see all the animals and how they (the managers) ran the place," she said. "I really liked the baby calves."
Palestine Fox, a sophomore, especially liked the horses she saw and noted that the tours made her think about how pollution in the environment is everyone's responsibility.
Although she plans to be a dental hygienist, Fox said, "the tours made me think about becoming a veterinarian."
Charles Leggett, a sophomore, participated in the tour to Perrydale in part because his father and uncle lived there as teenagers.
"It's neat to come here and see what they probably saw when they were around here," Leggett said. "It's kind of dusty here but a lot of fun otherwise."
Speaking from the other end of the spectrum, Travis Hayes sees a lot of value in the tours, too.
A senior at Perrydale High School and one of the Future Farmers of America (FFA) members who helped host tours from Madison High School, Hayes likes the opportunity to show off a little.
We can show them something they haven't seen before; show them where things like Wheaties come from," said Hayes. "They [Madison High students] don't have FFA in their school or agriculture around where they live," he added. "We can show them something they don't have."
Is the Madison High School program going to have long-term influence on its graduates? Too early to tell. When I asked them about a tour they went on, most students just said "neat" or "great." But if Ron Hudson is right, going up the country is an experience many will remember for a while.