In the introductory remarks of her 2014 book, “Raise: What 4-H Teaches Seven Million Kids and How its Lessons Could Change Food and Farming Forever,” author Kiera Butler tells a story about an 11-year-old girl named Lilly.

Somewhere along her life’s highway, Lilly picked up the idea that chocolate milk comes from cows with brown spots.

A cute story, right? But certainly, no adult would believe such a thing. I mean, that is positively unthinkable. Impossible.


A new national online survey commissioned by the Innovation Center of U.S. Dairy shows that 7% of all Americans believe that chocolate milk comes from – wait for it – brown cows (ya got to be kidding).

And 48% of survey respondents said they don’t know where chocolate milk comes from.

The survey suggests a shocking lack of agricultural literacy among Americans. There appears to be a disconnect between food producers and consumers about where food comes from, and that disconnect has consequences for agriculture.

In her book, Butler writes: “…in less than a decade Lilly will go to the supermarket, where her decisions will affect not only her own health and that of her family but also the status quo of the American food system and its cascade of global impacts … Lilly’s purchases will influence manufacturers’ choices about which chemicals to put into foods, what standards of safety to adhere to, and how to raise the livestock that will become meat.”

Unfortunately, many Americans make daily food choices unaware of the ethical or moral implications they support with their dollars at the grocery store.

American ag illiteracy has been going on for decades. As early as 1988, the National Research Council suggested there was a need to increase agricultural education in the U.S.

And a U.S. Department of Agriculture study conducted in the early 1990s discovered that about 30% of U.S. adults were unaware that hamburgers are made from beef.

In 2014, something approaching a plan to educate our children about all things agriculture was proposed by the National Agriculture in the Classroom Organization.

And last month, the USDA – through its Farm to School program – provided $5 million in grants for the 2017-18 school year for agriculture education.

But there is a long, long way to go.

Until our kids know with certainty that a pickle is a cucumber or that french fries come from potatoes, there’s work to do. Without knowledge about agriculture, informed decisions are impossible.

About Dave Dickey

Dave Dickey

Dickey spent nearly 30 years at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s NPR member station WILL-AM 580 where he won a dozen Associated Press awards for his reporting. For 13 years, he directed Illinois Public Media’s agriculture programming. His weekly column for Investigate Midwest covers agriculture and related issues including politics, government, environment and labor. His opinions are his own and do not reflect Investigate Midwest. Email him at

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