You sometimes have to get your hands a little dirty in the pursuit of education, especially in the Bitterroot.
Last Friday, fourth-graders from all over the valley converged in Hamilton to learn about their connection to the land around them and the vital agriculture industry that is still an important part of life for many Montanans. The 18th Annual Farm Fair, held at the Ravalli County Fairgrounds this year, gave 486 lucky kids a chance to learn about everything from rope-making to noxious weed management to butter churning.
"Agriculture is the leading industry in Montana," said Colleen Meyer, who organizes the event every year with her husband, Jay. "Our daily lives are affected by agriculture. Even though we are a rural state, there is a lot of unawareness about how important farming and ranching is to our state. This is a chance for kids to learn that, for example, milk doesn't come from a carton."
In the increasingly urbanized modern world, the farm fair helps young minds make the connection to the rural lifestyle that is still active, albeit increasingly marginalized by technology.
Along the way, they absorbed fun facts from each of the 16 different lesson stations staffed by 4-H and FFA (Future Farmers of America) students, as well as volunteers from around the Bitterroot Valley.
For example, students from Daly Elementary were shocked to discover that nearly 4,385 animals in Montana are caught by livestock officials with somebody that is not their owner, amounting to an almost $4 million rustling industry that is battled by people like livestock inspector Boone Jones with the Department of Livestock.
Meanwhile, students from Florence were busy hearing how nearly 63 million acres (roughly the same size as the state of Texas) of wheat are harvested in the United States every year. Montana and Wyoming are the two largest producers of the crop.
"We have a lot of older kids from 4-H and FFA who help facilitate the stations and teach the younger kids," Meyer said. "Actually, we have kids who attended as fourth-graders who are teaching. They remember how much fun they had, and how interesting it was, and now they are helping pass it along. It's really great."
There were stations on farm safety, horse shoeing, apple production, dairy, swine, water in agriculture, small animals and even a tin can ice-cream lesson.
"Real butter is better than margarine!" exclaimed young Emily Madrigal as she tasted freshly churned butter that had just been separated from the buttermilk in a small pan by hand.
After listening to a lesson on water in agriculture, young friends Lyric Devries and Kate Hurlbert of Daly Elementary School in Hamilton were prompted to exclaim their love of the natural world.
"I like riparian vegetation!" Devries exclaimed as she scooped her hand through the sand of a small-scale version of the Bitterroot River and its many small tributaries.
"Me too!" agreed Hurlbert.
The students were provided hay rides and hamburgers cooked by local beef ranchers on the site as well. They got a close-up look at young apple saplings from local apple grower Art Callen.
There were looks of keen interest when Callen explained that last fall's early frost didn't give the apple trees a chance to absorb the nutrients from the leaves before they were killed by the frost.
Eleven-year-old Rachel Brown was extremely informative and eloquent when explaining how she raises rabbits and chickens for the Ravalli County Fair every year. She allowed the young students at her station to pet her prized rabbit, about which she knew almost every detail.
"See how soft he is?" she asked the kids as they piled around her to touch the silky black fur of the animal.
One of the more popular stations was the rope-making, where Joe Hundley of Darby and Steve Baumon, among other volunteers, cracked jokes with the kids.
"I make rope from six in the morning to six at night," Baumon laughed with the kids. "Why? Because I have nothing else to do. That's why you kids should stay in school."
Once the students were done coiling together a rope with a hand crank, they used their new prize to play jump-rope.
Meyers said the farm fair is also a chance for younger kids to start becoming interested in careers in agriculture.
"It's a chance to introduce kids to the idea of joining 4-H or FFA," she said.
With all the ways that technology has changed the image of agriculture and disconnected people from the food they eat, it is becoming increasingly important to keep the connection to the land alive in the minds of children. One option would be to engage children in the classroom, but farm fair is obviously a much more appealing option for the kids, judging by the number of smiles on Friday. To embrace agriculture, it seems, it is sometimes good to get some hands a little dirty.
Reporter David Erickson can be reached at 363-3300 or email@example.com.