It all began in 1997 when Mary Zumwalt went to a summer teaching institute at Parkland College.

Growing up on a farm, Mary Zumwalt always loved agriculture. In 1997, she went to a summer teaching institute at Parkland College that showed how to use "Ag in the Classroom" to connect her teaching methods to agriculture.

Nearly 20 years later, Zumwalt has been named the 2015 Illinois Ag in the Classroom Teacher of the Year for the way she incorporates agriculture in the curriculum at her school.

The fourth grade teacher has been instructing children for 38 years and has taught at Altamont Lutheran for 28 of those years. She teaches the kindergarten class a few times a week, and incorporates agriculture into that program as well.

Ag in the Classroom was created in 1981, when educators decided that younger students needed to learn about agriculture. Although there were agriculture programs for high school and college students, there were no set systems for the younger students to learn about the industry.

Any teacher can have an Ag in the Classroom representative teach a day lesson for his or her classroom or they can use the provided materials to teach it themselves. Zumwalt uses the Ag in the Classroom tools, but goes above and beyond that by creating lessons of her own and sharing her ideas and knowledge by presenting her Ag in the Classroom lessons to other teachers.

For the past two years, Zumwalt has traveled across the country for National Ag in the Classroom workshops, showcasing her own creative teaching methods and learning what other teachers are doing.

It takes more of her time to add elements of agriculture to the regular curriculum, but Zumwalt feels it’s worth it when her students’ faces light up as they become engrossed in a new Ag in the Classroom lesson.

“I love teaching and I love my kids,” Zumwalt said.

The passion she has for Ag in the Classroom is evident when she talks about how her students are impacted by the agricultural activities. Zumwalt finds that her students learn well when she connects the curriculum to agriculture.

“The kids need to know where their food and fiber are coming from,” Zumwalt said.

One example of a lesson Zumwalt taught included the use of apples and fractions to explain how only a small portion of the Earth is suitable for farming. Having the students cut apples into various portions, she described the way earth is comprised of various fractions of land that are only useful for certain agricultural practices.

Since she has impacted hundreds of students over the years, the Ag in the Classroom leaders and the Altamont Lutheran School wanted to commend Zumwalt for her dedication. To do so, she was nominated for the Illinois Ag in Classroom teacher of the year.

Zumwalt was not aware of the nomination, and a secret school assembly was planned to surprise her by announcing her achievement.

Rachel Meinhart, the coordinator for Effingham County Partners for Ag Literacy, praised Zumwalt's efforts.

“Mary is well-deserving," Meinhart said. "She takes something that would be a day lesson, and turns it into a week-long lesson.”

Meinhart has worked with Zumwalt for three years.

“She has a great outlook on what agriculture means to the kids who didn’t grow up on the farm,” Meinhart said.

Zumwalt's dedication to the program goes beyond the walls of the classroom. This year, she has decided that proceeds of Big Earl’s Extreme Race, an event that she and her sister created in honor of their late father, will go toward Ag in the Classroom.

Currently, local Ag in the Classroom programs are financed by a grant from Illinois Ag in the Classroom, which is matched by local donations provided by area farmers who eagerly support the program.

Zumwalt is looking forward to another year of teaching and is unsure when she will retire. She admitted that when the time finally comes for her to do so, she will never be able to stop promoting and teaching others about agriculture.

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