Ground Works Midwest partners with South Dakota Ag in the Classroom |

Ground Works Midwest partners with South Dakota Ag in the Classroom

Holly Swee, South Dakota Beef Industry Council director of nutrition & consumer information, interacts with elementary students and presents information about beef during a YES! summer camp event hosted by Ground Works Midwest.

In early January, the South Dakota Ag In The Classroom (SDAITC) board of directors announced that program operations had officially dissolved effective Sept. 30, 2016.

In a press release, Gary Pribyl, SDAITC board president said, “The dissolution of SDAITC does not lessen the value and importance of ag education in South Dakota. Even in the current economic downturn, agriculture continues to be a major contributor to the state’s economy. Consumers are demanding more information about the foods they eat. Anti-agriculture groups are ever present with rhetoric and inaccurate information trying to convince consumers that common agricultural production practices are harmful to humans, animals or the environment. It’s important that farmers, ranchers, organizations and industry all work together to give an accurate portrayal of today’s farm or ranch. There are a variety of ag groups in South Dakota who have educational materials available and work to spread an accurate message about modern agriculture.”

Despite seeking out alternative funding avenues, donations had fallen below sustainable levels in recent years. The final blow was losing grant money from the South Dakota Department of Agriculture (SDDA). Pribyl said it had become increasingly difficult to find sponsors of the program.

“SDAITC has been around for more than 30 years, and the program used to receive $30,000 from SDDA,” said Pribyl, who farms near Wolsey, S.D. “Over the years, that number dropped down more and more. For the 2015-16 school year, SDDA gave $10,000, but finding the remaining dollars needed for the $90,000 annual budget was tough.”

“We want to be very strategic in identifying solid partners, choosing the best advocates and finding funding streams to help expand the program. How much interest we have will dictate how fast we can move.” Rev. Tim Olsen, director for GWM

More than 100 donors helped float the organization these last several years, helping to put on events at the Black Hills Stock Show, South Dakota State Fair, Ag Day for third graders in Mitchell, the Sioux Empire Water Festival and teacher training programs.

Teachers in the state of South Dakota were able to tap into the national database of more than 300 lesson plans to incorporate into their classroom materials.

“The curriculum matrix is available at the National Ag In The Classroom Organization (NAITCO) website —,” said Ann Price, former SDAITC executive director. “Teachers and volunteers can search by ag topic, course subject, educational standard or all of the above to find lessons that integrate into their regular lessons.”

All lessons are standards-based, said Price, so teachers can meet the specific parameters of the reading, science, English and math lessons they need to focus on, but with an agricultural spin. The pizza lesson was a popular one, with students learning about the various ingredients needed to make a complete pizza and which agricultural products they derive from.

“During my 4.5 years with the program, we expanded our pre-service teacher training to Black Hills State University and put over 500 agriculturally accurate books into elementary classrooms across the state,” said Price.

Price dedicated most of her time as executive director training teachers and volunteers, so they could accurately educate students. Debra Spielmacher, Ph.D., NAITCO director and website administrator, says every state’s structure is set up differently. Ideally, the program would have at least two employees — one to focus on teacher training and the other to work on fundraising and maintaining revenue streams.

“We have states with almost $2 million budgets and ones with less than $1,000 budgets,” said Spielmacher. “South Dakota has been a strong player in this program for many years, and Ann worked really hard in the position as executive director. The trouble comes with having to both fundraise and work on programming. There’s just not enough hours in the day.”

Lisa Gaskalla, NAITCO executive director, said SDAITC was a leader in developing strong programs and curriculum for teachers to incorporate into the classroom and has good news about the future of the program.

“SDAITC has always been one of our premier states, with some fantastic agricultural lessons and interesting approaches to teaching kids about where their food comes from,” said Gaskalla. “Almost immediately after the news hit that the program had dissolved, we had an organization reach out to us about picking up the program.”

That organization is non-profit Ground Works Midwest (GWM), a Sioux Falls-based organization that provides innovative educational resources to elementary and middle schools teaching garden programs. With a focus on health, wellness, food production and agriculture, Ground Works Midwest has already mastered the art of incorporating these topics into the classroom, and picking up the SDAITC program is a natural fit.

“An educational specialist we work with brought the SDAITC program to our attention,” said Rev. Tim Olsen, ordained pastor, former county Extension agent and the current executive director for GWM. “We continue to collaborate with many agricultural commodity groups about the importance of ag awareness in young people and have developed partnerships with them to create lessons that focus on math and science with an agricultural spin.”

Current partners include the South Dakota Beef Industry Council, South Dakota Pork Producers, Hy-Vee Dieticians, Sioux Falls School District, Avera and Sanford chefs and a doctor of chiropractic medicine, health and nutrition. The group is also in talks with the Midwest Dairy Association, South Dakota Farm Bureau and South Dakota Soybean Association. Additionally, the non-profit recently initiated a joint pilot program with AgUnited for South Dakota.

“We have a very fast-growing Youth Eating Smart! (YES!) pilot project that started as part of a grant from the SDDA,” said Cindy Heidelberger Larson, chaplain, former 6-12 language arts and speech communication teacher and GWM associate director. “YES! is a summer camp that promotes health, wellness, agriculture, leadership skills and job opportunities. Former SDDA secretary Walt Bones sits on our board of directors and has been instrumental in offering us guidance in the agricultural information we present.”

While the SDAITC program won’t immediately spread statewide, Ground Works Midwest is currently working on a three-year plan with strategies to expand the message and work with teachers throughout South Dakota.

“Moving forward, we want to be very intentional and methodical regarding the SDAITC program,” said Olsen. “We want to be very strategic in identifying solid partners, choosing the best advocates and finding funding streams to help expand the program. How much interest we have will dictate how fast we can move.”

“Parents can help by talking to teachers and spreading the word about what we do,” added Heidelberger Larson.

“NAITCO doesn’t like to see any state without a program for any length of time, so when we have a good strong partner like Ground Works Midwest step up to the plate, we get really excited about that,” said Gaskalla. “This is a strong group that has a passion for educating students about where their food, fiber and fuel comes from and that matches the mission of the NAITCO.”

To learn more about GWM, check out or contact your local commodity group to encourage them to get involved in supporting the program.

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