Friday, July 22, 2016

Chris Fesko Combines Ag and Teaching

From Empire Farm & Dairy magazine


There are probably a lot of words to describe Chris Fesko.

But the one that fits best is “teacher.”

Chris Fesko
Her mind is constantly churning, left and right, up and down, trying to figure out the best way to teach children concepts they need to know to survive in today’s world.

She knows she has to be inventive, she knows she has to be fun, she knows she has to be engaging.
She is all those things.

“My daughter is in kindergarten, and she was here two weeks ago,” second-grade teacher Jennifer Ridley told Chris during a visit with her class to Fesko’s On the Farm Discovery Center in Spafford, Onondaga County. “She hasn’t stopped talking about it. She asks us if we know how to tell if animals are mammals. She talks about holding the chicks. And she can’t wait to come back here.”

Fesko has received numerous honors for her work at the On the Farm Discovery Center and for the series of farm videos she has made for children.

She’s won Parent’s Choice Awards and Telly Awards. Most recently, she was honored by Farm Credit as one of 100 agriculture innovators in the United States.

Chris Fesko pumps water for the children from Owasco Elementary School in Auburn during their visit to the On the Farm Discovery Center. The kids had the opportunity to learn how a windmill and pump worked to get water out of the underground well. 
In June, Fesko was in Washington D.C. to be honored by Farm Credit, which selected 100 people from across the country (in celebration of its 100th anniversary) as agriculture innovators. Fesko was the top person chosen in the agriculture education category and was in the top 10 of the 100 honored.

“The Farm Credit 100 Fresh Perspectives program was launched to recognize leaders who are positively shaping agriculture and rural communities,” according to the Farm Credit website. “The individuals chosen for the Fresh Perspectives program were selected by a panel of experts on issues important to rural residents and ag producers.”

“I’ve known Chris for 25 years,” said Janice Bitter, director of the Farm Credit East office in Homer, Cortland County. “I’ve watched as she has taken this business higher and higher. She gets so excited when she teaches — she teaches them practical things about math and science. It’s amazing the interactions she has with kids.”

At the Discovery Center

A visit to a farm usually is an exciting adventure for most children. But Fesko makes it more than just exciting.

Those kids leave the On the Farm Discovery Center with so much knowledge it’s no wonder their little heads don’t pop.

Students from Owasco Elementary learn about pullies in the Discovery Center
On a bright, sunny, warm day in late May, nearly 100 second-graders from Owasco Elementary School in the Auburn school district stopped in for a day with Fesko. They broke up into smaller groups and headed off to different parts of the discovery center.

At the pond, they caught frogs in various stages of development. They learned about and saw the polliwogs, partial frogs with polliwog tails and fully developed frogs.

In the barn, they learned about pulleys and levers and how these help people do their work. The kids got the chance to use a pully, but of course, when they pulled, Fesko said, “C’mon, you have to yell when you pull for it to work.”

Some mighty grunts and groans could be heard bellowing from the barn.

In the animal area, the children saw horses, sheep, pigs, goats and a lamb. With the assistance of Fesko’s helper, Debbie Putnam, the children learned what makes an animal a mammal.

“Mammals make milk,” Fesko told them. “Mammals feed milk to their babies. Mammals have hair or fur.”

Debbie Putnam, one of Chris Fesko’s helpers at the On the Farm Discovery Center, shows a lamb to second-graders from Owasco Elementary School in Auburn.
She showed them a rooster. “Is this a mammal?” she asked.

“No,” the children said in unison.

Even something as simple as water coming out of a pump pushed up and down by Fesko is a teaching moment. The kids were delighted to refresh their faces and hands with the cold water coming from the pump, but Fesko made sure they learned about the windmill and how it was drawing water up from the well so she could pump it out for the kids.

The beginnings

Fesko has a teaching degree from SUNY Cortland and at one time taught in the Skaneateles school district, west of Syracuse. She also worked as a substitute teacher at one time and was a soccer coach in her early years of marriage and while raising her own three children.

But her background of being raised on a small farm in Upstate New York brought her to combine agriculture with education.

It all began when she saw a woman with a camera at one of her pastures.

“She pulled in our yard and said, ‘Can I take a picture of your cow?’” Fesko remembered. Problem was, the animal wasn’t a cow — it was a black and white horse.

“You just insulted my horse,” Fesko told the woman. “You can take a picture of my horse Joe, but you have to apologize to him.”

The woman knew cows were black and white and asssumed the black and white animal in the pasture was a cow. Fesko told the story to her husband, Rick, and he convinced her that “somebody’s got to do something.”

Out of this came her foray into videos. In 1993, she came out with Summer on the Farm, the first in her On The Farm series.

“It took $30,000 to make the first one, and I just hoped it would pay for itself,” she said.

Today, she has written, produced and filmed 11 videos that have been used to teach children around the world about life on the farm, animals and agriculture. The videos have won four Telly Awards, eight Parents’ Choice awards and many other honors.

The way we put the videos together was to feed the brain,” Fesko said. “We wanted to show them visually what’s going on on the farm.”

Fesko is a big believer is letting kids experience things first hand. She knows if they actually use a tool to perform a task, or touch the skin of a pig, or see why some trees have been cut down, then they will remember it long into the future and understand the concept she’s trying to teach.

After the videos

After a few years of doing more videos, working on staff development days at area schools and writing some curricula for pre-kindergarten and up, she opened the On the Farm Discovery Center. She said people and teachers loved the videos, but wondered if there was a place where they could bring children in person to learn about agriculture.

In 2000, Fesko hauled an old, dilapidated barn up the hill at her farm, put on a new room and drew up the sessions that would be held at the discovery center. The first year, 1999-2000, she welcomed 60 children.

“This year, we had 2,200 kids through here,” she said.

The Discovery Center helps Fesko teach the way she wants to teach — hands on. The children get the chance to touch and see frogs and tadpoles up close and personal. They see and touch the farm animals. They get to try their hands at using various tools (pullies, levers, pumps) and learn the science and math that goes into making these tools.

She takes kids out in the woods to learn about nature.

One story Fesko loves to tell is about a third-grader from Porter Elementary in the Syracuse City School District.

“We were taking the Woods Wander to learn about the cycle of life of a tree, the habitat in the woods and forest management,” Fesko said. “There was a tree that had died and I asked, ‘So why did that tree die?’ This kid had all the answers — the soil, water, oxygen.”

But the dead tree was 10 feet tall. Next to it were some 16-foot-high trees that were alive and doing fine. She asked why those trees were alive while the one died.

Finally the little boy got it.

“This one didn’t get any sunshine,” he told Fesko. And she went on to explain to him that if that dead tree is removed from the forest, then “all these baby trees can grow,” she said pointing to the newly sprouted trees on the ground.

“You could see it in him,” she said — he understood the process. She went on to tell him that if he thought all this was cool and liked being in the woods, there was a college right in Syracuse where he could study forest management and spend his career in the forest.

Fesko also is sought after for speaking engagements across the country. She speaks passionately about farming and agriculture and wants to “help farm kids feel better about growing up on a farm and inspire non-farm kids to want to grow up to be farmers,” according to the nomination written for her Farm Credit award.

But Fesko’s biggest paycheck comes from the children. She remembers a little girl from Le Moyne Elementary in the Syracuse City School District who got off the bus at the discovery center and marveled at the view of the hills and valleys and beautiful Skaneateles Lake in the distance.

“She started singing the Sound of Music, you know, ‘the hills are alive,’” Fesko said. “That is the reward. I know I filled a little void in their life that can’t be filled anywhere else.”

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