A Lesson in Agriculture

Article by Krista Kuzma

DENNISON, Minn. – Jeff and Cheryl Beckman like good conversation. The dairy farming couple also likes agriculture.

So, when there was an opportunity to combine the two, the couple jumped at the chance. Last year, the Beckmans started the nonprofit organization, AgInspire, which helps teach others about agriculture and create conversations about current-day farming through displays at county fairs, state fairs, and children’s museums among other places and events.

“We felt we are in a day and age where people need to hear the agriculture message. If we as farmers aren’t engaged actively, we’re going to miss our opportunity,” Jeff said.

In addition to founding the nonprofit, the Beckmans milk 100 cows on their dairy near Dennison, Minn. Their children – Matt, 24, Melissa, 23, Krista, 21, Nathan, 19, Anna, 16, Alisa, 13, Jenna, 13, Lynnea, 11, and Isaiah, 7 – help with both endeavors. As dairy farmers, the Beckmans want others to know what they do on their farm and why they do it.

“The reason behind AgInspire is we want to inspire people about agriculture not only in knowledge, but also in excitement. Agriculture is an industry that is here to stay. It’s important economically and it’s important for the generations removed from the farm to understand where their food comes from,” Jeff said.

A big draw to AgInspire educational exhibits is the Ag Cab Lab, which is an actual tractor cab that has been modified into a tractor-driving simulator. Riders have the opportunity to see what’s it’s like to drive a tractor. The simulator also shows tractors from 1911 and 1950.

“What we found … is that a tractor cab is a great way to bring people in, but we’re in the process to develop other exhibits to go along with it. While people are waiting in line – because the lines are 15 to 20 minutes – they have something to do,” Beckman said.

Similarly, the Ethanol Racer is a modified racing arcade game. Throughout the race, it shows how using ethanol makes a difference in air quality.

In addition to the five simulator cabs and three Ethanol Racer games, there are two Community Supported Agriculture trucks with vegetables, three crop barns that display facts about crops and a number of corn tables that show different types of corn along with a variety of fact display boards that are being made.

Last year, the exhibit traveled to 14 fairs. This year, it will go to 22 fairs in five states, including the Minnesota and Wisconsin state fairs, and Aksarben in Nebraska.

To help create and expand the exhibit, the Beckmans have assistance from one employee, and three board of director members, who include a former children’s museum director and software technicians. But a lot of the work has been done by the Beckmans themselves.

“It’s a lot of learn as you go,” Cheryl said.

Jeff agreed.

“We now know a lot more about wiring,” Jeff said with a laugh.

Although the Beckman family works the exhibits, they want the agriculture community to help.

“We want the 4-H and the FFA students to run it so they get the leadership opportunities and they interact with consumers. It’s great leadership experience, it’s great public speaking experience, it gives them a chance to understand the issues and it gives them a chance to connect,” Jeff said.

Since this has taken time away from the dairy, Jeff hired a full-time employee to help get chores done.

“We rely on family and the hired employee,” Jeff said about when he has to be away from the farm. “You have to be organized. It’s really scheduled.”

The extra endeavor can make for a challenging schedule, but Jeff said it has been fun.

“It has forced time away from the farm and we get to spend time together as a family,” he said.

Although the Beckmans created the nonprofit last year, the tractor simulators have been used since 2000 when Jeff had the opportunity to create a display for a children’s museum near Owatonna, Minn.

“Being na├»ve I didn’t know how much work it would be. We felt at that time why don’t we try it and see if we could get some sponsors. It was very well received,” Jeff said.

The exhibit continued several years before it moved to a children’s museum in Rochester for a few months.

“Then it went into mothballs for a couple years,” Jeff said about the stall in the project.

The Minnesota Farm Bureau heard about the exhibit and invested in it for the next five years before they moved on to other opportunities last year.

But the Beckmans didn’t want to see the exhibit end. That’s when they created the nonprofit.

“We need advocates for farmers because we have a window that keeps closing. We need to get the word out,” Cheryl said.

Jeff agreed, especially because they saw how well the exhibit worked. Last year, the exhibit had over 70,000 riders in the cab, not counting those who watched.

“We saw the difference it made and it’s been a tremendous outreach – people respond to it. Kids love to play. If you can stop the kids you have an opportunity to engage the parents,” Jeff said. “The cab is a great ice breaker and draws people in.”

By next year, the Beckmans have a goal to make the exhibit self serving for county fairs. The exhibit would be designed and contained within a trailer that could travel from county fair to county fair. Currently, one of the cabs is set up this way. Another goal is to make a nationwide exhibit that could be shipped to museums across the county.

However, Jeff said one challenge has been determining the main messages within the exhibit.

“If I could leave you with one fact to walk away with having never experienced agriculture before, what is it? We want people to know that farmers care. We care about our families, the land, our animals. That as farmers we are faced with many choices everyday, but if we do not care for the land or our animals and put them first and take care of them, we are not going to be in business. We care about water quality because we live on the land and drink the water,” Jeff said.

Although it’s been a struggle finding how to best articulate that message, the Beckmans believe their new exhibits to go along with the Ag Cab highlight the work farmers do in a positive manner.
Another struggle has been fundraising.

“Because of downturn of economy, it has been harder to find key sponsors. However, we are hoping that sponsors will come on board and help us grow when they see the projects we have in the works. Sponsors will be key to getting the message out. We have a format where we can reach people and we need to help fund this to be able to do it,” Jeff said.

Despite the challenges, the Beckmans have enjoyed their time teaching others about what they do every day.

“People are getting so far removed from agriculture,” Jeff said. “To see people’s faces light up and seeing them discover things we take for granted – that’s the fun part.”

“We’re never going to be the full answer, but we hope to be part of the group effort to make a difference,” Jeff said.

via Dairy Star