Farms in miniature: Intricate new exhibit takes look at food production

Tricia Weber adjusts a few details inside the new Farm to Family exhibit at the Kansas Learning Center for Health. The goal of the new display is to teach students that food doesn't originate at grocery stores, but rather goes through many steps before that.

By Jared Janzen

HALSTEAD—The newest exhibit at the Kansas Learning Center for Health is one that would make a curator at the Smithsonian jealous.

Its centerpiece is an expansive diorama illustrating the many steps that grain, meat and dairy products go through to get from a farm to a dinner plate.

Tricia Weber, the creative genius behind building the Farm to Family exhibit, said she hopes it will teach students where their food actually comes from and let them appreciate the great care that goes into keeping our country fed.

Tricia Weber spent 1,700 hours over the past two years creating the new exhibit. That’s the equivalent of 212.5 eight-hour days.

I hope they will discover ways that they can help their own community by being a part of the agricultural workforce now and when they grow up,” she added. “I also hope it sparks an interest in them to learn more about being healthy and growing their own healthy foods.”

Weber logged 1,700 hours building the exhibit over the past two years. After all the time she’s invested into the project, she said it’s a breath of fresh air to finally have it completed.

“I can’t say I’ve ever worked on a project for this long and been this detailed,” she said.

The Learning Center started fundraising and researching for the project in 2018, while the building process began in spring of 2019.

I painted and glued and then painted some more,” Weber said. “It was amazing to me how much time every little detail took.”

She consulted with several local model train enthusiasts in the process, including Phil Aylward.

I don’t think he realizes how much of a help he’s been,” she said.

All the pieces of the exhibit are to a 1/87th scale.

Quite literally, ‘little by little,’ it went together, thousands of pieces and it turned into what we see today,” Weber said.

Part of the display includes a downtown reminiscent of Halstead with its red brick street and shops, like D’Angelo’s Pizzeria, The Neighbors Store and Health Ministries.

A number of companies that helped sponsor the exhibit appear within, including the Farmers Co-op from Halstead, Cargill from Hutchinson, El Dorado Livestock, Land O’Lakes and the Kansas Beef Council.

Halstead residents may be able to pick out a few other familiar sights, like a family farm modeled off John and Ileen Weber’s farm from the 1980s or the former Blue Ridge Dairy, owned by the Bergkamp family.

“Neither of these are exact replicas, but they resemble the locations that inspired them,” Weber said. “As we went along, we decided to add a piece of Halstead history to the exhibit. Visitors will see Dr. Arthur Hertzler’s country home, ‘the Crow’s Nest,’ carefully nestled into the exhibit.

This model of the Farmers Co-op in Halstead was the most difficult part of the display to create, according to Tricia Weber.

A rendition of the Learning Center itself is also tucked away in one of the corners.

Weber said the most difficult component was the model of Farmers Co-op in Halstead, which she said took three months to build, plus more time to install.

I wanted to make this piece of the exhibit look as close to the original as I could,” she said. “I took hundreds of photos and drove by the Co-op dozens of times. The painting and tiny details on the Co-op were challenging and difficult, but it was a great experience.”

Another difficult aspect to create was the waterfall to make it look natural.

“You have to go through a ton of different steps to do that water,” Weber said. “Painting the base, trying to get the shading to where it looks like sandbars, adding the rock and doing it all in a way that it stays when you put the ‘magic water’ in. Then, the waterfall itself you create as separate pieces and do different painting techniques over it.”

Weber said the mini scenes are their favorite part of the display. These are all the tiny people engaging in normal—and sometimes humorous—daily activities.

“If you look closely, you will see a boy playing fetch with his dog, a cow in the apple orchard, a family hanging clothes on the line, a couple having a picnic by the lake, a police officer relaxing on a bench visiting with a boy and his dog, a little girl flying a kite, pigs breaking out of their pen and a man running away from a raccoon,” Weber said. “There are so many more little details that I can’t even list them all.”

If you look closely at the little people in the exhibit, you’ll find all kinds of interesting details, like these people enjoying a picnic. In another place, there’s a man getting chased by a raccoon.

They’ve talked about creating a “seek-and-find” list of details. Learning Center Executive Director Carrie Herman said the mini scenes are her favorite part, as well.

“Every time I look at it, I see something I hadn’t noticed before,” Herman said. “Tricia put a lot of time into the intricate details, which makes it very fascinating to explore.”

The exhibit includes some downtown shops loosely based on Halstead’s Main Street.

“I had to take creative liberty due to the exhibit layout and to make the greatest use of my time,” Weber said.

While some parts of the exhibit like the Co-op and the Crow’s Nest were built from scratch, most of the buildings or components came from kits, but even with those, Weber put her own touches on them to make them unique. She added details to the insides of some of the downtown businesses, for example.

“I photographed some of our buildings on Main Street through the windows, just to get perspective on our businesses,” she said. “They don’t all have the same names, but they’re pretty close.”

The diorama was basically done by Old Settlers in August, since the Learning Center had originally hoped to do an open house then to show it off. The full exhibit with all the signage was just completed a couple weeks ago.

To help students track the different industries, like dairy or wheat, they can press a button and all the relevant parts will light up. Bob McDowell was instrumental in piecing together the lighting for the exhibit.

“He spent a lot of hours here helping and he does his work as a volunteer,” Herman said.

Weber, who’s been an instructor at the Learning Center for about eight years, said the idea to create this exhibit came after she and other instructors were noticing that when they asked students where milk, fruit or bread comes from during nutrition classes, the answer was often the grocery store.

To help the kids understand that their foods don’t originate at the grocery store, I thought it would be beneficial to create something that shows them all of the steps that it takes to get their foods to their tables,” she said. “I hope that it will also help them to develop an appreciation for all of the many people, from farmers, truck drivers, factory employees, grocery store workers, cooperative staff and so many more, who are involved in the process, as well.”

The new exhibit springboards off the Farm to Family program the Learning Center created in 2016 for preschool through first grade students.

It was well received by this young group of students and pushed us to think outside the box to find ways to teach visitors of all ages where their food originates,” Herman said. “With Tricia’s background, vision, talent and connections, we were able to reach out to various funding partners to obtain funding.”

As she researched for the project, Weber learned the agriculture industry is in desperate need of qualified workers.

We also wanted to show the kids that the individuals involved in agriculture deeply care,” she said. “They care about their grains, their animals and they care about the people who they serve. So, we expanded the exhibit to feature agricultural occupations.”

In addition to the diorama, the new Farm to Family exhibit has several other interactive educational components and even some live cherry tomato plants.

The exhibit also teaches kids how they can grow their own nutritious foods, which features a video teaching them about gardening and even has an aqua garden with cherry tomatoes in it.

Staff look forward to incorporating the new exhibit into their education programs.

“We have a Farm to Family program that we teach little ones, and I anticipate we’ll add to that program,” Weber said. “We’ll do some adult programs. We’d like to teach people different ways of cooking beef and vegetables and finding different ways to include those types of items in people’s diets.”

The Learning Center has been closed to the public the past couple weeks, but Herman said they have some smaller school districts that would like to visit in-person during the spring semester.

Herman and Weber can’t wait to show the new exhibit to students and the public—they just don’t know when that will be, thanks to the pandemic.

We have had a few different dates in mind for open houses, but with the pandemic, we have put them on hold for now,” Herman said. “It would be wonderful if we could host something this spring or early summer.”

“I hope visitors will love this exhibit as much as I do,” Weber added.