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Reconnecting with North Carolina’s agricultural roots

This is part one of a three-part series on the North Carolina Farm Bureau's Ag in the Classroom program.

You see them on your drive to the beach. The rolling fields of tobacco, soybeans, corn, cotton, and wheat. You see them on your trips west to the mountains. The cows, the hay fields, and the vineyards.

It makes for a scenic drive, a gentle reminder of what North Carolina once was, and the livelihood that once dominated this state. 

But it’s too often a detached experience. The scene rolling across the tightly-sealed car windows like any other projection on our mobile devices, computer monitors, or television screens. It is just another high-definition viewing experience.

Even with the explosion of the Farm-to-Fork movement, the proliferation of CSA’s in our suburban and urban communities, and the apex of the organic farming movement, agriculture is still too often seen as the remnant of a more pastoral and bucolic era in our state’s history. 

As the migration from the state’s rural communities continues, more and more young people in our metros are now detached from the hard, messy, and rewarding labor of growing one’s own food. 

Rural places are facing a myriad of problems these days. They are all well documented. There’s the ongoing struggle to improve poor health outcomes. There’s the persistent problem of intergenerational poverty. There’s the struggle to support public schools. There’s the loss of living-wage, middle-class careers.

Yet in those communities, the state’s largest industry — agriculture — literally sits next door.

But like their urban cohorts, many rural young people are now detached from the process that feeds and clothes the state, nation, and world.

And in those climate-controlled vehicles, as we sit mesmerized by the natural beauty of this state, we often do not give thought to the craft and science of farming. Perhaps instead of driving past a picturesque field, more people should take the time to climb into the cab of a half-a-million dollar combine and work the state-of-the-art computer system.

Agriculture feeds our families, but it also provides jobs. Jobs that are increasingly high-tech and steeped in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. 

It’s a connection that is too often overlooked in the classroom.

But the North Carolina Farm Bureau is trying to bring that connection to North Carolina schools. The Bureau brought its Ag in the Classroom program to Kenansville Elementary School in Duplin County last month, hosting a professional development workshop for elementary- and middle-school teachers on how to incorporate agricultural-themed projects into their classrooms and daily curriculum.

We will give you a glimpse into the program over the next few days, showing how it reconnects North Carolina education with the state’s agricultural roots. First, here’s a short preview of what happened at Kenansville Elementary School last month. 

Todd Brantley

Todd Brantley is the senior director of public affairs at The Rural Center. He formerly served as director of policy and research at EducationNC.

He grew up in Randolph County where he attended Farmer Elementary School, Randleman Middle School, and Randleman High School. Todd attended Randolph Community College before graduating from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1995. He received a master’s in theological studies from Duke Divinity School in 2002 and a master’s from the UNC School of Journalism and Mass Communication in 2009.

Prior to his work at The Rural Center and EducationNC, Todd also worked as the associate communications director at MDC providing strategic communications support for several programs, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Partners for Postsecondary Success and the Developmental Education Initiative. Todd was part of the writing and research team that produced the 2010 and 2011 State of the South reports. While a graduate student, he interned at The Story with Dick Gordon and was the editor of The Fountain, the alumni magazine for the Graduate School at UNC-Chapel Hill.

He was part of the research and writing team that received the Governmental Research Association’s 2014 Most Distinguished Research Award for a report on the use of telepsychiatry in rural areas. He was a co-author of How the Triangle Gives Back, a 2008 report that examined local philanthropic and charitable giving in the Research Triangle region. His writing and research has appeared in the Daily Yonder; Insight, a publication of the North Carolina Center for Public Policy Research; and NC DataNet, a publication of The Program on Public Life at UNC-Chapel Hill.

A native of North Carolina, Todd currently splits his time between Raleigh and Pikeville, where he helps maintain his wife’s family’s farm. He says, “As a product of this state’s systems of public education, from secondary, to the community college system, to our public postsecondary system, I have seen firsthand how important these institutions are for the social and economic wellbeing of this state and its citizens. Regardless of whether you are a new resident or a native, a parent or not, we all benefit from the fruits of our current system of public learning, and the hard work and foresight of those who came before us who understood that, regardless of political affiliation, North Carolina needed to be a national leader in access to quality education for everyone.”