Fourth-grader Leila Hassani had never caressed a sheep. She didn’t know about the 150 different breeds of the animal that she thought was just “valuable for wool.”
“Schools didn’t teach us this,” Leila said as she met live animals at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds with her classmates from Clara Barton Open School in Minneapolis.
Hundreds of kids — mostly third- and fourth-graders — from Minneapolis and St. Paul public schools descended on the fairgrounds Tuesday for Urban Ag Day 2018. Organized by the Minnesota State Fair in partnership with the Minnesota chapter of the National FFA Organization and local agriculture groups, the event was designed to teach young minds from metro-area schools how the food they eat is connected to farms.
The curious students, accompanied by teachers and parents, got an up-close look at pigs, buffalo, goats and sheep, among other farm animals. They also were introduced to modern-day farming equipment. Guided by FFA youth leaders, students learned what the animals eat and how that overlaps with the human diet. There were lessons on the water cycle, the importance of pollinators and the versatile soybean.
Third-grader Gwen Wiese was excited to learn, from a signboard hanging along the animal enclosure, that newborn goats were also called “kids.”
“I feel like I am making friends with these animals,” she said as she headed to a dairy cattle enclosure in the Miracle of Birth Center.
The FFA members, mostly high schoolers, enthusiastically answered questions posed by the younger students.
Taylor Jerde, from Randolph High School just south of the Twin Cities had to answer “No” loudly each time a student asked her, “Do brown cows produce chocolate milk?” Each time the sheep bleated, the buffalo lowed and the goats baaed, the students responded by imitating the sounds, individually and collectively.
“I like to see how the kids’ eyes lit up as they listened and absorbed the information on sheep that I shared with them,” said Ashley Teubert, an FFA member and high school student from the Glencoe-Silver Lake School District.
The highlight of the day for many was lunch hour. The students, who had never thought about where the bun, patty, cheese and ketchup in their burgers came from, were intrigued to learn that all these items originated not in grocery stores, but on farms.
“Every time you take a bite, you realize that it has actually originated from farmers,” said Natasha Mortenson, community relations manager at Riverview, a local dairy and beef company. She helped coordinate the event, which was sponsored by at least 20 agricultural organizations and Minnesota farmers.
“It is hard to understand all the work that farmers are doing to produce safe and wholesome food if you are not able to get out on a farm,” she said, explaining that some of the students have been removed from the farming profession for generations.
The Urban Ag Day outreach started eight years ago with one school at a time.
Today, about 60 FFA member students from five schools — Dassel-Cokato, Glencoe-Silver Lake, Hancock, Morris Area and Randolph — and 25 adults share their agricultural expertise with youngsters who may not otherwise get to experience modern farming.
Organizers said that the intention behind the project was to get kids interested in pursuing agriculture as a career as well as creating farming awareness.
“Through [this] unique experience, we want to help metro-area third-graders connect food and the farm,” said Michelle Butler, education manager with the Minnesota State Fair.
After the daylong trip, Leila said she knows now that so many breeds of sheep are valuable not just for wool but for meat, milk and other products such as gelatin, tape, brushes and pet food ingredients.
“My father works with a pizza company. I will ask him where the pizza comes from,” she said, pledging to visit again next year.