Iowa students learn about life, death on farm
DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) – Squeals and screams erupt as Ibby Rodgers and Zoie Wagner carry their new pigs into a barn on Des Moines‘ south side.
The feeder pigs, each roughly the size of a corgi, are the latest arrivals at the Des Moines Public Schools’ teaching farm.
Over the next few months, two students from Central Campus’ animal science classes will feed and water the pigs – and muck out their stalls – until the animals reach more than 250 pounds.
After a brief stop at the county fair, the pigs will be sold to slaughter.
It’s a process that plays out each summer in FFA and 4-H program across Iowa, but it’s rare in Des Moines.
These “city kids” don’t live on a farm and they’d never raised livestock before enrolling in the class.
For many Des Moines students, the class is their first real experience with the cycle of life and death.
“It is so easy to see a pork chop in the meat counter,” said Will Fett, chair the Iowa Council on Agricultural Education. “But (it’s harder) to really understand the care the farmers take to put into raising the animal that will ultimately become that pork chop.”
The disconnect between farm and food is echoed in a story teacher Kevin Anderson recounts about one student’s introduction to his animal science class.
“Meat comes from animals?” the teacher told The Des Moines Register , emphasizing the student’s surprised reaction.
Des Moines Public Schools operates the nation’s largest student-run greenhouse and livestock facility for high school students, according to the district.
The farm spans four acres on the McCombs Middle School campus on County Line Road.
That’s where students from Central Campus’ agricultural business, horticulture and veterinary classes get their hands dirty while learning about the businesses that drive the state’s economy.
Iowa leads the U.S. in pork production, marketing about 45 to 50 million pigs a year. It’s inventory of pigs and hogs was 21.8 million in 2017. That’s more than seven times the number of people in Iowa.
In 2017, the state also was the leading producer of corn (2.61 billion bushels) and eggs (16 billion), and second in soybeans (562 million bushels).
Des Moines high school students enrolled in the classes can earn college credit through DMACC while learning to care for chickens, pigs and sheep.
But it’s not just feeding and watering. Students develop nutrition plans for the animals and marketing plans for the sale of eggs and meat.
“I think there’s a misconception that city kids don’t need to learn this,” Fett said. “We all eat, we all go to the grocery store, we all purchase food.”
Rodgers and Wagner, both seniors at Roosevelt High School, will apply what they’ve learned during an FFA program at the farm this summer. They’re raising four pigs to show at the Polk County Fair, July 18-23, at the State Fairgrounds.
Last year, more than 7,100 swine raised through Iowa FFA programs were shown at county fairs and the Iowa State Fair, said Amy Powell, who works with youth at Iowa State University Extension and Outreach.
The Roosevelt teens know their peers in rural Iowa might have more experience, but they’ve been through this before.
This spring, their Central Campus classes raised 23 pigs that were later sold to the slaughter house. Hy-Vee Inc. purchased the meat from 22 of the animals and sold it at some of the company’s Des Moines stores.
The other pig was donated to the Des Moines Area Religious Council food pantry.
Hy-Vee employees used the marketing information the class developed to create a sign advertising the selection of “local pork” raised by Des Moines students.
There were chops, pork roast and country-style ribs. It sold faster than the class imagined.
“‘It tasted good,’ is what I heard,” Rodgers said, although neither she nor Wagner purchased any of the meat. “It’s kind of sad to think about.”
The Des Moines teenagers know they’re not supposed to get attached to the animals.
Countless Iowa FFA and 4-H students can relate.
ISU Extension’s Powell remembers the stream of tears that came when the first lamb she raised was sold to market.
“Ultimately, we have to feed the world,” she said. “It sounds really harsh when I verbalize it, but it’s the cycle of life.”
Growing up on a dairy farm, Iowa FFA Executive Secretary Scott Johnson said he was immersed in the birth, death, sickness, injury and health of animals.
It taught him invaluable lessons, he said.
“Life is not material,” he said, and producing livestock “certainly put that into context at an early age.”
Back at the Des Moines Public Schools farm late last month, Rodgers and Wagner can already feel the excitement as the new pigs arrive. They snap pictures with them and give them names: Danny, James, Franco and Dave – the last name in honor of Farmer Dave, who sold the animals to the school.
Wagner remembers how much she enjoyed it last spring when they’d let the pigs out to run up and down the barn aisle.
“They’d come up to you and act like dogs,” she said.
And that’s exactly what the four feeder pigs are doing now, stretching their legs and playing in the straw.
“Look at you go!” Wagner shouts as one of the young pigs figures out how to drink from the bottle on the pen’s side. “You’re so smart.”
They ask their teacher what will happen to the animals at the end of their summer program.
They’ll likely be auctioned off at the county fair, or if they make it, at the State Fair in August. Either way, they’ll end up “on the truck” bound for the slaughterhouse.
Rodgers glances at the pigs and laughs at the ruckus they make.
“The hardest part will be letting them go and knowing they’re not coming back,” Rodgers said.