Williams gave them each a paper plate to stand on. Then he dropped red, white and blue poker chips signifying nutrients, water and sunshine, the basic things a tree needs to survive. He told the students to stand on their paper plates and pick up as many chips as they could without knocking into each other.
When all the chips were gathered up Williams asked the students if there were any who didn’t have all three colors of chips. Four students raised their hands.
“You all died in a natural thinning,” Williams said.
The students were attending a field trip at Winston Bryant’s timber farm just outside of Heflin through a two-day educational program called Classroom in the Forest. One day is spent learning a curriculum taught in the classroom and the other is spent experiencing the sights and sounds on a timber farm.
Classroom in the Forest is sponsored by the local branches of the Alabama Forestry Commission, the Soil and Water Conservation District, the Alabama Treasure Forest Association and the Alabama Cooperative Extension System. Its goal is to teach the students about timber farming, the wildlife in the forests and conservation, said Ann Labore, district administrative coordinator of the Soil and Water Conservation District.
The program has been active in Cleburne County for 10 years now, Labore said. It started with Fruithurst and Pleasant Grove elementary schools and expanded to all the elementary schools in the county, Labore said.
The curriculum was created in partnership between the extension office and the Treasure Forest Association, said Ruth Sarro, a retired regional extension agent who now volunteers for the program. The program benefits from the team effort of all the sponsors, she said.
“No one person could do this as well as this team does,” Sarro said.
The program teaches the students about the forest resources in Alabama, said Jimmy Jimmerson, a past president of the Treasure Forest Association. But it also teaches the students about the wildlife the timber supports, he said.
Timber is the number one agriculture product in Alabama and just about every county has a Classroom in the Forest program, Jimmerson said.
Landowners who follow the land management practices promoted by the Treasure Forest Association are eligible to have their properties certified as Treasure Forests by the association. Bryant’s farm is one of about 20 certified Treasure Forests in Cleburne County, Jimmerson said. Jimmerson’s farm in Fruithurst is another, he said.
It’s important that students learn proper forest management practices and good conservation so they can help preserve their natural resources, the organizers of the field trip said.
Students today are “Nintendo savvy,” but they often don’t get out to places like timber farms to learn to appreciate natural resources, said Kelvin Perkins, a regional extension agent.
“As adults we have to push them to appreciate nature,” Perkins said. “The adults that are taking care of our natural resources today are not going to be here forever.”
The students were enjoying their time out from the classroom, and they were learning more than they think, Sarro said. When she takes them on the hike she sees it, she said. The students often notice things they’ve learned in the classroom such as animal footprints. Sarro said she loves those moments.
The students were hard pressed to talk about what they had learned through the program -- most just said “trees.” But they were excited about the activities on the farm.
Ashley Vick, 11, said she liked the scavenger hunt the students did on the hike. They found some rabbit paw prints and saw some trees that she didn’t recognize before the program.
“We found a snake hole,” said Caitlin O’Neal, 10.
Katelyn Crawford, 12, most enjoyed feeding the fish in the lake.
“You got to see 'em,” Crawford said, “when they came up to get the food.”
The experience, said Bryant, is an opportunity to make young children aware of timber industry. Although timber is big business in Alabama, you don’t hear much about it, he said.
“This is one way to get in on the grass roots level and let the kids know forestry is here,” Bryant said.
Staff writer Laura Camper: 256-235-3545. On Twitter @LCamper_Star.