Emma Shirley talks to a class while touring North Harbor Dairy as part of the ZoomDairy! program.

If you have already met Emma Shirley, you know that she is passionate for agriculture. Emma’s excitement about agriculture exudes through her conversations and actions and her strong technical background is communicated easily in way that those not familiar with agriculture understand and appreciate. If you have not met Emma, she is a dynamic and fun speaker who is helping to educate hundreds of children around northern New York about science, technology, engineering and mathematics using agriculture as a foundation. Emma is an agricultural educator at Old McDonald’s Farm near Sackets Harbor. Thanks to the Sackets Harbor Agricultural Education and Awareness Center, Old McDonald’s Farm (OMF) and Emma are quickly extending beyond the traditional programming they’ve offered.

Emma provided a great program called the Life Sciences Road Show, a STEM based elementary level presentation that followed math and science curriculum in schools. Decreasing budgets were limiting school visits to OMF, so Emma began going to the schools doing presentations such as Fantastic Farm Products, Honeybees and Pollination, Crops and Chemistry, A Day in the Life of a Dairy Cow, and several other topics. But when the Pandemic hit it eliminated the opportunity to deliver these programs in the schools. When restrictions relaxed in the summer of 2020, OMF was able to open with some limitations, leading Emma to create the ‘Hump Day Science Days’ program that used her life science road show curriculum to deliver great educational programs every Wednesday in additional to the pandemic limited, traditional programs at OMF. Funding for the hump day programs was provided with grants from the American Farm Bureau Foundation and Farm Credit East through the Sackets Harbor Agricultural Education and Awareness Center (The Center).

The Center consists of local agriculture, education and business leaders, and the Robbins Family–owners of OMF and North Harbor Dairy. Formed in December 2019, The Center is a 501-c3 not for profit organization with the mission of positively impacting and fostering relationships with the community through increasing understanding of modern agriculture. The board of directors is chaired by Mike Burger, owner of Deer Run Dairy Farm in Henderson, with board members consisting of Nathan Pistner, plant manager of Great Lakes Cheese in Adams, Jennifer Gaffney, superintendent of Sackets Harbor School District, Aaron Kimmich, vice president/commercial banking officer for Community Bank N.A., Tedra Bean, agricultural teacher and FFA advisor at Belleville Henderson Central School, and Jay Matteson, Jefferson County agricultural coordinator. Julia Robbins, general manager at OMF, provides administrative assistance to The Center.

The educational tool was established to support and complement existing agricultural education programs which include a focus on serving as a “Friend of Old McDonalds Farm” type organization. The Center is not just focused on OMF and will assist other organizations interested in enhancing their agricultural education and awareness efforts. Because it is a not for profit charitable organization, The Center can apply for grants and funding opportunities that other organizations may not have access to. The Center hopes to foster the development of new programs educating the public on agriculture and strengthen the relationships between people and farm animals.

As the fall of 2020 approached and OMF shut down its season, board members of The Center encouraged Emma to think outside the box and how she might deliver programming virtually to schools that could not allow her in to the classroom and were restricted from traveling to OMF. Emma, in her usual creative and passionate manner, developed the ZoomDairy! program. OMF and Emma began offering free, interactive dairy tours for students anywhere! Thanks to the online, live interactive Zoom platform, Emma is able to bring students on a tour of the dairy operation at North Harbor Dairy. She utilizes much of the curriculum developed for the Life Science Road Show to help students learn while she takes them through the farm. The students are able to ask question in real time and Emma has found that because she’s not guiding a big group, instead just walking with her cell phone, she can go places in the barns where normally a group could not. The tours are free to the schools and youth groups thanks to funding obtained by The Center, to support the educational efforts of OMF.

Anyone interested in additional information about The Center should contact Julia Robbins at 315-778-1443.

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