By Jeff Helms
“Class, class, class!”
Elizabeth Allen summoned the attention of third graders from University Charter School (UCS) as they huddled under a sprawling oak at Micky and Lolita Smith’s Sumter County farm in late April.
“Yes, yes, yes!” echoed students as they began a day of hands-on exploration and learning.
“I grew up on the farm and want to share this experience with my students,” said Allen, who organized the first farm day six years ago during her teaching internship. “They are learning about agriculture and the natural resources in our area, as well as potential job opportunities.”
To make the farm day a reality, Allen solicited help from friends and family, including the Sumter County Farmers Federation, church members and her father, Allen Waddell, who grazes cattle on the Smith family’s farm.
“My dad helps me identify a research project for the class each year that has impact on the local community,” she said.
Past projects ranged from trapping feral hogs to reducing pollution. This year’s topic was fly control in cattle. Teams presented posters highlighting the effectiveness of fly repellent options, from dust and spray to ear tags and supplement blocks.
“I love getting to see their projects come to life and have them present what they researched,” Allen said. “It’s completely student-led. I hand the project over to them, and they do the work. I love seeing the light bulb come on as they work together and discuss a problem my dad is facing on the farm.”
In addition to presenting projects, students heard about farm commodities and local history from Sumter County Women’s Leadership Committee Chair Sara Buck and member Lolita Smith.
“They love it,” Smith said. “Some of these kids have never been out on a farm. They love being out here looking for deer and hog tracks and wild onions. It’s like they’ve never been outside.
“They’ll get on that cattle trailer, and we’ll go down and watch the timber being harvested. Then, we go over to the cattle pen and run the children through the chute. When they come out, I give them a big pretend shot. We go feed the cattle and end the day with a fossil hunt and sack race.”
Smith said the farm day encourages students to develop greater curiosity about the world.
“I just want them to observe and learn,” she said. “Anywhere you go, you can glean so much knowledge, and I don’t feel like kids get to do that as much these days.”
Adleigh Reed and Seth Reece, both 8, agreed their favorite part of the day was learning to determine a pine tree’s age by counting rings with Zane Winfield of Southern Logging.
“We learned trees are used to make toilet paper, paper towels and napkins,” Reed said.
Reece added, “I didn’t know anything about farming until I came here today.”
Reed and Reece are among 50 third graders at UCS, which opened in 2018. The Smiths’ late son, Justin, was instrumental in establishing the rural charter school, and Micky, a professor emeritus of mathematics at the University of West Alabama (UWA), serves as board chair.
Waddell said the farm day is one way UCS teachers like his daughter make learning relevant and fun.
“If you told me seven years ago we’d be doing this, I’d never have believed it,” he said.
When asked how he feels seeing Allen share her love of farming with students, his emotion was evident.
“You can’t put that into words,” he said.
As for Allen, the former UWA cheerleader doesn’t plan on hanging up her rubber work boots anytime soon. She’s attending her first Ag in the Classroom Summer Institute this month and hopes to bring back lessons to help students grow their appreciation of farming and forestry.
“I just want them to experience life on the farm,” she said, “and hopefully understand more about where our food comes from.”