Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Ag Fest a success for many reasons

Michael Roth, left and Kathy Moreland, far right, accept on behalf of Roth's Markets the Oregon Ag Star award on April 28, 2007 in Salem. Sherry Kudna, Ag Fest chair, and emcee John Burt present the award. Burt also received an Ag Star award. The awards are for an individual, business or organization who has made significant contributions to the agricultural industry.

SALEM, Ore. — While the number of people gathered to celebrate the 20th anniversary banquet of Oregon Ag Fest in Salem on April 28 was modest, there was a lot to celebrate last weekend: by the time the sunshine-filled two-day event was over, the total attendance was 17,250.

That was up from a year before. It also showed remarkable growth since it first began. According to emcee John Burt, the executive director of the Farmers Ending Hunger organization, the beginning of Ag Fest involved pitching a tent in Riverfront Park in Salem, with “a half dozen displays and a couple pieces of machinery.”

About 400 people showed up at the first event, which eventually changed its focus to attracting children and moved to occupy several buildings on the Oregon State Fairgrounds.

But there are a lot of reasons to celebrate this event and its growing success, beyond the number of adults and kids that attend each year.

There are an incredible number of volunteers, from farmers to farm organizations, and all types of agri-businesses. They come from all over the state to teach kids how to pet, feed, grow and even count: they promote agriculture, but more importantly teach the next generation why they should care.

As Burt pointed out, the event is held in April so people in agriculture can be there: “You’re across the table from 10,000 kids” and they get to talk to growers.

That is the most important lesson of all: in a time when agriculture is under such scrutiny, farmers and ranchers need someone to explain, encourage and celebrate what they do. As farmers prepare for vegetables to be planted, fruit to be harvested, calves to be weaned and other crops to be cut, they deserve more understanding as well as respect for all that they nurture.

Kids, especially from urban areas, can’t always visit the farm so other learning experiences have been developed. Oregon’s Agriculture in the Classroom program reached 48,500 students last year, often by visiting classrooms throughout the state and encouraging teachers to use the Get Oregonized resource guide.

The Ag Fest experience takes the learning experience another step, and creates a chance for people to see vegetables, seeds, animals and fowl first hand; pet animals ranging from llamas to rabbits; take a plant home to watch it grow; and learn enough facts to fill a text book.

Oregon Ag Fest also presents awards to those who have made significant contributions to the agriculture industry: nominations include individuals, businesses or organizations.

This year, Roth’s Markets received an award, as did John Burt.

The first Roth’s store first opened in 1962 in Silverton, Ore., and since then the supermarket chain has gained a reputation for using local and regional products and community involvement. Roth’s has helped encourage children to learn about agriculture in such places as Oregon Garden.

Since the beginning, the family-owned Roth’s has helped with Ag Fest and “been extremely generous with the time their staff,” said Burt.

Meanwhile, Burt has received several awards already from the agricultural community for his contributions. From being involved in extension services at Oregon State University, to being on the boards of various food banks and now his involvement with the Farmers Ending Hunger organization, Burt has shown his dedication to supporting farmers and been recognized for his efforts.

But he became teary eyed and speechless for a few moments when he was surprised with the Ag Star award this year. He has watched this event grow, and it was obvious how much he believes in its goal of providing an educational experience for families.

“This is an incredible, incredible event,” he said “Of all the things I’ve ever did in my career … this is one of the best things I’ve ever did, and best things I’ve ever been involved with,” Burt said. “ All the work that goes into letting the public know what agriculture is all about and engaging them in a positive, educational way there’s nothing like Ag Fest, it’s the most incredible thing.”

Looking out at the current Ag Fest organizers identifiable by their red shirts, he honored them.

“Twenty years later, you’ve got still the best event I’ve seen anywhere,” he told them, emotion evident in his voice.

From those who gathered, there was a unanimous roar of agreement and warm applause, even from those whose voices were hoarse from talking to hundreds of children who visited their booths earlier.

Sherry Kudna presents John Burt with an Oregon Ag Star award recognizing his contributions to Ag Fest for the last 20 years.

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