U hosts agricultural event for city kids

by Douglas Rojas

For many metro-area elementary school students, watching a chicken egg hatch or petting a piglet are unfamiliar episodes in the urban landscape.
But Tuesday and Wednesday, they had the chance to do those things without leaving the Twin Cities.
The University’s St. Paul campus is hosting Agriculture Awareness Days, a four-day event that gives elementary school students firsthand exposure to livestock, agriculture production and products.
“We want to show the kids how animals are raised and how we feed them. We want to give them a general idea of what animals and agriculture are,” said Alex Bach, an animal science graduate student and chairman of the organizing committee.
About 600 students came to the St. Paul campus for the first two days of the event. Six hundred more students, in second through seventh grade, from 11 metro-area elementary schools are expected to visit today and Friday. This is the sixth year the event has been organized by graduate students from the animal science department, and the third year the agronomy department has been involved in the event.
Often, students from the inner cities have little direct contact with livestock animals or understanding of the long food production process, said Jim Cassady, an assistant scientist in animal science.
“A lot of people don’t understand where the food comes from,” said Cassady, who helped organize the event. “We want them to know that food not only comes from the grocery store,” he said.
During the week’s events, which take place at the Livestock Arena on the St. Paul campus, students go through eight different stations that include topics such as: dairy cattle, beef, poultry, swine, agronomy production and agricultural by products.
The children will have the chance to see how calves, piglets and baby lambs feed from their mothers, as well as take home soybean or corn plants where they can watch them grow.
“There aren’t many hands-on places like this for kids,” said Linda Spellacy, a third grade teacher with the Snail Lake School in Shoreview. “It exposes them to things that we haven’t had access to in other places in the cities.”
More than 124 third-graders from the Snail Lake school visited the Livestock Arena Tuesday.
As part of its curriculum, the school tries to bring together field trips with topics taught in the classroom, Spellacy said. The Awareness Days tie with the animal unit that is emphasized in the school’s curriculum for third grade.
Rita LaDoux, a coordinator of enrichment activities at St. Anthony Park Elementary School, agreed that the event is a great way for students to learn more about rural life.
“It is a terrific time for the kids,” said LaDoux. “They were thrilled to see a chicken hatch from the egg,” she said. This is the school’s second time participating in the event, and this year the school is sending about 100 students.
LaDoux explained that this kind of event enhances a learning process that starts in the classroom. The school also has a special class for students to learn how agriculture affects their lives — things that people often take for granted. However, in school students are not exposed directly to agricultural issues.
“I have taught 28 years, and this is one of our best field trips,” Spellacy said.
“The grad students are all really good and well-prepared with the kids. If you look around, everybody is attentive to what they are doing, and in the classroom that’s not always the case,” she said.
Furthermore, she said that experiences like this one aren’t always emphasized in our societies. “We are from a suburban school, and many of our children travel a lot,” Spellacy said. “Many have been to Disneyland but they haven’t been to a farm. They were super excited about coming.”
Instead of working with animals in the future, nine-year-old C.J. Hunt said he would prefer being an astronomer. Still, the event taught him a new aspect of the animal’s life.
“I like the way how (the animals) can help us, for food and for clothing. It’s interesting what they can make for us,” he said.
The event has been so successful in the past that this year, organizers are including an extra day of activities to cope with the attendance demand, Bach said.
The Awareness Days will run today through Friday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., and all events are open to the public.