By Holly Shanks
Pass by the front lobby, the ticket lines and concession stands, and the watchful predatory eye of the T-Rex, and you’ll find a different kind of exhibit at the Saint Louis Science Center. It’s an exhibit, complete with chickens, vegetable gardens and tractors, and it tells the modern-day story of how our food makes it from a farmer’s hands all the way to our dinner table.
The Saint Louis Science Center (SLSC) is now tackling the topic of agriculture and has reached out to involve the very people who live that story every day – local farming families and agricultural leaders. The result is an exhibit that takes visitors on a journey, not only about the science of food, but also about people coming together from different backgrounds and experiences in a spirit of leafy collaboration.
The new GROW exhibit officially opened to the public on Saturday, June 18, and drew 3,400 visitors over the grand opening weekend. GROW is a permanent exhibit and, at more than one acre, is the first of its size in the U.S. to focus on agriculture. It is also the largest exhibit expansion to SLSC in more than 30 years and is located on the former site of the EXPLORADOME.
Pamela Braasch, SLSC education director and GROW operations manager, has spent the last three years working on the exhibit and learning about farming. She said she has been not only surprised, but “blown away” by what she experienced at a variety of local farms.
“I always tell everybody that every single conception I had about farming before this exhibit completely changed,” Braasch said. “What I thought I knew of farming – I was like – I don’t know anything. The technology and science behind it all – it just blew me away.”
Braasch said there is a rich agricultural story in Missouri and Illinois that people should know about. Most people don’t realize facts, such as Missouri is the fourth-largest rice producer in the U.S. and also supplies 70 percent of the world’s black walnuts. Or that Collinsville, Ill., is the horseradish capital of the U.S. Or that Illinois is ranked number one in soybean production.
Now is the time to bring the story and experience of agriculture to St. Louis. That’s because there is a large “food movement” happening in the St. Louis region and across the country.
“People are getting more and more concerned about where their food comes from,” Braasch said. “And (SLSC) wants to help start that conversation. And as people are growing their own food, we want to help teach them how to do that.”
Gateway Greening is a nonprofit organization working with communities through gardening and agriculture. The organization will assist in supplying the vegetable plants for the HomeGROWn exhibit.
“I think GROW is a unique exhibit. There are plant science exhibits around the Country, but this one gets specific about the whole chain of events that happens in agriculture,” Ruppert said. “There is so much public interest about where their food comes from that this exhibit will cover that topic on multiple levels – everything from the local food movement all the way to large production in agriculture.”
If you think this exhibit will simply show a visitor walls filled with infographics and plaques with explanations – think again. The exhibit is immersive, interactive and inspiring. If visitors want to get dirty by digging up worms and insects to understand benefits to the soil – they can do that. If visitors want to look down at rows of corn from behind the wheel of a full-sized combine – they can do that. If visitors want to attend a seminar teaching them how to pickle green beans or make molasses – they will be able to do that, too.
Braasch said the exhibit will offer an array of diverse programs, demonstrations and learning opportunities covering all seasons and all trending topics in agriculture. There is something for everyone and all ages at the GROW exhibit.
The $7 million project offers more than 40 indoor and outdoor exhibits. The SLSC lists the exhibits as “interactive content areas, including food production, plant and animal biology, agronomics, and personal connections to food growers, processors, and distributors.
Additional features include, “tours through planted areas, an orchard, evening and weekend programs for adults and families, beer and wine demos and tastings, and a mini tractor track.” Seed saving workshops and exchange days are also in the mix.
Funding for GROW came from private donors and support from the National Science Foundation, according to the SLSC.
There will be an abundance of food grown and harvested at the exhibit. The food will be used for demonstrations, learning programs and culinary creations.
Brandon Moore, SLSC executive chef, said he will create dishes from the fresh ingredients grown at the exhibit. The idea is to show visitors examples of what they can make from food grown in their own backyard gardens.
Any food not utilized in the exhibit programs will be donated, according to Braasch.
Educators also are showing excited interest in GROW, especially after a recent educator preview, Braasch said. The SLSC is already booking school groups for field trips to the exhibit.
The SLSC also wants GROW to be an example of sustainability. Much of the construction was done with repurposed materials. For example, six rain barrels will collect water to help with irrigation, all of the wood used in construction was donated from repurposed Missouri wood products, and the large centered pathway is lined with city curbs that would have otherwise been destroyed.
Braasch said in developing the exhibit, the SLSC worked with local farmers, scientists and educators.
“We did not want to romanticize it. We wanted to tell the true story because there are so many facets of agriculture. You have large-scale, organic and backyard farming,” Braasch said. “We really wanted to show all of these, but we wanted to tell it accurately. That is why we partnered with so many farmers and scientists.”
The farming community responded and was excited to be involved in the project. Braasch said just because the exhibit is open doesn’t mean the relationships forged during the development will be ending. Connecting the visitors to the people who grow and raise their food will be an important part of the GROW experience.
The exhibit has only five staff members and it will rely on volunteers to help with GROW’s educational endeavors and presentations. Braasch said along with the exhibit partners there has been an abundance of volunteers wanting to sign up. And the variety of volunteers wishing to be involved will offer visitors a rotating look at science and technology topics, farming life, or how farming equipment, like the combine, works.
The SLSC also wants the community to be involved with GROW and the food produced at the exhibit. Offering a variety of programs and events, like pumpkin and apple festivals, will give area residents the chance to come to the exhibit to learn, connect to the people involved in agriculture and enjoy the journey of food.
Ruppert said too many people have become separated from rural America and their own rural roots. The new SLSC exhibit is an opportunity for an urban audience to learn about what goes on in agriculture, which is more of a rural endeavor.
“There are so few families involved in agriculture that we kind of have to relearn things, where they used to just be taken for granted,” Ruppert said. “The SLSC creates a platform for agriculture to tell its story because there is a lot of misunderstanding about agriculture today.”
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