Fayette County 4-H’ers Host Famed Agriculture Scientist

Ray Archuleta and youth find roots and earthworm burrows in Steinlage’s cornfield. Cover crops planted in between the rows improve soil health.

July 9- West Union, IA. Fayette County 4-H’ers at the Growing Greener 4-H Greenhouse hosted soil health expert and conservation agronomist Ray Archuleta for a youth field day packed with activities and attended by over 55 youth and adults. Ray Archuleta is known around the world for his analysis of soils under different tillage systems and his promotion of healthy soils and conservation tillage systems. An international lecturer, he has 25 years of experience with the USDA’s National Resources Conservation Service.


Ray started off with hands-on activities for the kids. Attendees learned that microbes and other soil organisms make soil healthy and help crops grow, but tillage can wreck their homes and make it hard for them to do their work. The youth put tilled and untilled soils through a series of experiments, in which the no-till soils held up and the tilled soils fell apart. They also built model soil aggregates with foam balls, pipe cleaner, and silly string. The group was able to find and spray-paint roots and worm holes in a large unearthed piece of Loran and Brenda Steinlage’s cornfield.


After Archuleta’s hands-on experiments in the soil, the attendees split into groups and rotated through three learning stations. Tannis Axten, a farmer from Saskatchewan, projected her microscope for the youth to see soil organisms including fungi, bacteria, nematodes, micro-arthropods, and protozoa. They drew what they saw, and made edible soil cups adding different toppings (each representing a different microorganism) to the dirt (crushed chocolate graham crackers) to turn it into a living soil.


Jennifer Stoffel, associate professor of biology at Upper Iowa University, taught youth about requirements for plant growth with an activity; the youth pretended to be plants using their different parts (roots and leaves, or feet and hands) to collect valuable resources like water, light, nutrients and carbon dioxide. The youth learned about consequences if there were too many or too few of these resources. Stoffel also brought microscopes so the kids could pair up and see the chloroplasts powering the photosynthesis of cells.

Jennifer Stoffel helps youth use microscopes to explore chloroplasts in plant cells.


Finally, members of the Growing Greener 4-H club and Fayette County Council members led groups in leadership games that revolved around teamwork. The youth had fun competing in races and challenges that necessitated strategy and cooperation. Kassi Steinlage, one of the club’s youth leaders, was pleased with the field day’s success. “It went really well. We made it hands-on, and I think the in-depth activities pulled youth in and got them excited to learn.”


Youth agreed! Bethany Buitenwerf, age 10, said, “I really liked the experiments we did and the games.” Alice Sass, age 9, liked using the microscopes and building the soil aggregates with silly string. “I learned the different between soil and dirt,” she said. “Soil has living things in it!”

Bethany Buitenwerf of rural Elgin and Nebiyah Bodie of Moose Jaw, Canada learn about soil organisms.

Growing Greener youth leaders and County Council members lead teamwork games.

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