PEORIA, Ill. — There are some things that third-graders just
“Do you know what manure is?” Michelle Abel, a pork producer
from Glasford, asked students in a classroom at Glen Oak Learning Center in
“It’s poop!” came a chorus of voices of third-grade students
in Mrs. Ferguson’s classroom at Glen Oak Learning Center, part of District 150
schools in Peoria.
The weeks-old baby pig that Michelle Abel carried around
wrapped in a towel drew a different response.
Oohs, ahhs, giggles and squeals could be heard as students
gently patted the little pig’s ears, snout and head as Abel carried her from
desk to desk.
“Our piglet is a baby pig, so she needs to have it calm and
quiet. The quieter we are, the better we can hear our pork producer, Mrs. Abel.
She is going to share information about this pig and the pigs she raises and how
that becomes good for you,” said Debbie Rudin, Ag in the Classroom coordinator
for Peoria County Farm Bureau.
As Abel began her presentation, the little pig grunted
softly in her carrier, adding some appropriate background noise to the lesson.
For Abel, no topic was off limits, from explaining the use
of gestation stalls to explaining why pigs don’t have the curly tails seen so
often in pictures in children’s literature.
“If you notice the crate here, there’s the sow or the mama
in the stall and the babies are outside. We do it like this because guess what
happens when a 500-pound sow lays down and if we don’t have these bars to
protect the babies, what’s going to happen to them?” she asked the students.
“She’s going to crush them,” one student answered
“Exactly, it’s going to smash the pigs. These bars adjust to
the size of the sow — we can make it smaller for the smaller sows and bigger,”
Explaining the lack of a curly tail came next.
“When they’re born, they all have pigs with curly tails —
you’ve all seen pictures of pigs with a curly tail. However, mine does not have
a curly tail. We cut their tails. Why do you think we cut their tails?” Abel
asked the students.
“The reason we do that is say you guys have to be in this
room 24 hours a day, seven days a week, you would get bored with each other,
“Yeah,” came the chorus of voices in tones that suggested
students already could picture that scenario.
“Well, it’s the same thing with pigs. A pig will get bored,
and the first thing they start chewing on is that long, curly tail,” Abel said.
“Yu-uck!” exclaimed the class almost as a whole.
Abel then brought the procedure to a level that students
“I don’t know if you girls have pierced ears yet,” she said
as several little girls nodded. “Did it hurt when you did that?”
“Yes,” one girl answered, but was overruled by her
classmates who echoed, “No, no, no.”
“There’s no bone in the little pig’s tail. When we cut the
pig’s tail, it’s smaller than our pinkie,” Abel said.
She also made the transition from baby pig to bacon and
sausage seamlessly, at one point starting an explanation with, “When we harvest
Across town, at Pleasant Hill Elementary School, Illinois
Central College students Paige Ehnle and Ashley Kauffman, who both hail from
livestock farming families, were teaching a similar lesson to students in
No matter what grade or where students are in Peoria County
schools, Rudin and her volunteers fit the message to the classes.
“We do tailor the message differently. For third grade,
we’re going to approach the subject a little bit differently than we are for
sixth grade,” Rudin said. “Today, we’re talking to third-grade and fourth-grade
classes in the inner city, and they are interested in why we cut the tails. How
does the nose feel? What are the cuts of meat?”
The pigs and other livestock that are used in the
presentations is more than show and tell.
“We are putting producers in the class, and we talk about
how producers are very careful about how they care for the animals, that they
are kind to the animals, and we talk about the whole life cycle, that this is a
natural progress and a natural progress for animal agriculture,” Rudin said.
The pork presentations during March are one of seven
different monthly presentations that Peoria County Farm Bureau’s Ag in the
Classroom team does in the course of the nine-month school year.
Their schedule is a busy one — in March alone, Rudin and her
team traveled to 117 classes in schools throughout Peoria County, reaching some
2,100 third- through sixth-grade students.
The classroom presentations feature local farmers, Peoria
County Farm Bureau members, talking about their farm operations.
“We do seven different presentations. In September, we
talked about nutrition. In October, we talked about Illinois River
transportation. In November and December, we talked about renewable energy and
evergreens,” Rudin said.
The presentations always include a hands-on element, from
baby pigs for the pork production section to evergreen boughs of different
varieties so students can identify different Christmas tree types.
Rudin said that although different topics elicit different
reactions, the conversations always involve talking about food with students.
“We put the slide up with the different cuts of meat, and
when you put that slide up, there’s a whole conversation that happens about
where your bacon comes from,” she said. “That’s what we want them to be thinking
about, where their food comes from, and be a little more educated and then go
home and share that with their parents and then be able to feel safe about their
For the pork session, Rudin’s team included Abel, who
received the 2013 Pork Promoter of the Year Award from the Illinois Pork
Producers Association, as well as local farmer Debbie Streitmatter, along with
Ehnle and Kauffman.
The four-legged parts of the presentations included the pig
from Abel’s Glasford farm and two pigs from Cowser Farms, contributed by Cheryl
For many of the classroom pigs such as the Cowser pigs,
their story can end a little differently than their peers.
“Because they cannot return to the original herd because of
biosecurity, they’ll go to a satellite farm. Last year’s pig that went through
this program, the demonstration pig, she became a 4-H project, so she lives a
different life cycle than her peers,” Rudin said.