New learning lab helps youth discover more about agriculture at fair

Published 5:34 pm Thursday, August 3, 2023

By Abigail Chalmers

The 4-H Building at the Freeborn County Fair has a new exhibit this year: the Ag Learning Lab. 

This interactive, hands-on experience first began last year at the Waseca County Fair as a result of Waseca 4-H Extension educator Amy Nelson’s efforts. Nelson’s work was adopted by Freeborn County’s own extension educators Amy Wadding and Lexie Ignazewksi and brought to the county fair. 

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The exhibit itself is a method of learning for people of all ages, with activities that can be adapted to varying levels of knowledge and understanding. The learning lab is right inside the 4-H building on the left side and features a massive exhibit wall that blocks off a sizable area filled with numerous simulations and games that teach participants about agriculture. 

The first and most noticeable part of the exhibit is the display on the front side of the exhibit wall, which shows a variety of different farming equipment labeled with numbers. At this point, visitors can borrow an iPad to follow along with the display, as each piece of equipment is tagged with a ThingLink extension that transports viewers into a deeper informational dive about the farming tools. Ignazewksi said they partnered with Kibble Equipment out of Hollandale to put together the ThingLink tabs.

“We went into Kibble in Hollandale and did kind of a tour there to go through and see what they do, kind of the behind the scenes there,” she said. “We were able to interview and do that whole tour so kids can see the inside of the combine, and the different tools that they use to work on it.” 

Another component of the equipment display is pricing education. 

“We talked to the sales [department] to kind of give [viewers] that education of how much a combine truly does cost or how much of an investment that tractor or that equipment truly is,” she said.

Just around the corner of the wall is where the exhibit opens up. The other side of the display features a variety of fruits and vegetables as well as a fridge. After reading the information listed on the wall, participants can open the fridge and learn about where each food should be stored for maximum freshness. To the right, there is a wall dedicated to GMO education, where participants can use light-up red and green buttons to indicate if they think a fruit or vegetable contains GMOs. Adjacent to that wall is a simulation grocery store where participants can scan QR codes to learn if a product contains soy. 

Jennifer Skuza, the associate dean and department head of 4-H throughout Minnesota, commented on how applicable the exhibits were for people in their everyday lives.

“It’s so educational,” she said. “I love how it can just easily relate to what’s in your cabinet at home or what you see in the store.”

Another highlight of the exhibit is the Commodity Carnival, sponsored by MBT Bank, which Wadding said gives participants “an introduction to what it is to be an agriculturalist, to be a farmer” or otherwise involved in the agricultural community. Run by an Ag Lab leader, the simulation demonstrates what it’s like to make purchase decisions and respond to gains or losses. Ignazewksi added that it shows “how the market shifts.” 

“If you sell on the right day, you can hit high,” she said. “But if you sell on the wrong day, you can hit low. It’s kind of the luck of the draw there.” 

Rounding out the exhibit are various quizzes about Minnesota farm products as well as an interactive experience that demonstrates the different end usages of Minnesota-produced corn. Participants can scoop corn onto scales until a light turns green, signaling that they have reached the appropriate ratio between ethanol, animal feed and exports. 

Skuza noted she admired how the learning lab was catered not just to those in the agricultural world but to everyone. 

“It’s well-selected bits of information that attract a wide variety of people,” she said. “Some people may not relate to the corn, but you know what? The refrigerator and what goes in it, or when they go shopping… I love the wide breadth of it.” 

The exhibit was assisted by donations from MBT Bank and the Hanson Foundation, organizations with a passion for serving local agriculturally based communities. Scott Drexler of the Hanson Foundation said that the 4-H project holds a special place in his heart. 

“I was part of 4-H and FFA — I showed cattle and stuff throughout my history, too,” he said. “So it has some sentimental reasons, too, more than anything. It’s a great way for kids to learn, and adults, too.” 

The Hanson Foundation gives away several million dollars to nonprofit organizations in the northern Iowa and southern Minnesota area each year.

“It’s enjoyable to help out wherever we can in our local communities,” Drexler said. 

Patrick Bell of MBT Bank added that supporting the Ag Learning Lab was something of a passion project for the bank, too, noting that MBT is a “pretty heavy ag-based bank.”

“We saw an opportunity here for something cool and fun to get kids on,” he said. “We saw a lot of value in the education … with our ag base of customers, we thought it was a good fit.”

Skuza said she appreciated how the learning lab contributed to the overall experience of walking through a 4-H building. 

“I also love what it does to a 4-H building, which oftentimes is filled with exhibits that you pass by, and you look for somebody’s name or for whatever it might be.” she said. “But this turns into that museum effect where you can walk through and experience it as well as come away with something new in addition to the projects you get to see.”

According to Wadding, 4-H buildings across the counties and country are “diminishing,” and the Ag Learning Lab is an effort to bring the buildings in southern Minnesota back to life. 

“We’re trying to do different things to bring this building back to vibrance and fullness,” she said. 

She added that there are a great deal of exhibit additions to look forward to in the future thanks to the generous donations and fundraising and that the area 4-H clubs are excited to continue expanding on the project. 

“Now we have the next 51 weeks to be intentional,” Wadding said. 

Within the next five years, the four counties involved thus far — Waseca, Rice, Freeborn and Steele — should be able to display all of the exhibits and continue to enhance the experience.