Michelle Abel, a pork producer from Glasford, Ill., holds a young pig so a student at Glen Oak Learning Center can pet it. Abel was a guest presenter for a session on pork production as part of the Peoria County Farm Bureau’s Ag in the Classroom program.
Michelle Abel, a pork producer from Glasford, Ill., holds a young pig so a student at Glen Oak Learning Center can pet it. Abel was a guest presenter for a session on pork production as part of the Peoria County Farm Bureau’s Ag in the Classroom program.

PEORIA, Ill. — There are some things that third-graders just know.

“Do you know what manure is?” Michelle Abel, a pork producer from Glasford, asked students in a classroom at Glen Oak Learning Center in Peoria.

“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 immediately.

“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,” Abel said.

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, wouldn’t you?”

“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 could understand.

“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 our pigs.”

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 fourth-grade classes.

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 food, too.”

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 Walsh.

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.