Gazing at four pigs in a pen, the first graders wanted to know why some of them had blue tags in their ears and others, pink. Simple, Delaney Droog told them: It makes it easier to tell the boy pigs from the girl pigs.
“If the boys had pink tags, you’d think it was a girl, right?” said Delaney, who as a member of Lowell High School’s Future Farmers of America is qualified to speak on such things. She gets up at 4:45 each morning at her family’s farm, an impressive fact for these first grade students from Murray Lake Elementary, part of Lowell Area Schools.
“Do any of you guys want to be farmers when you grow up?” she asked the children. A couple of hands went up. “It’s kind of a dirty job but it’s really fun. You get to be with animals all day.”
The Murray Lake pupils also got to be with animals on a recent morning at the Wittenbach/Wege Agriscience and Environmental Education Center. They held baby chicks, pet a lamb and stroke a horse’s mane, thanks to the center’s programming and a dozen friendly FFA students.
“I’m glad when they have questions,” said Delaney, a junior who shows pigs and beef cattle at the Kent County Youth Fair. “I like kids. I like to teach.”
Family heritage, farming futures
Delaney is one of about 80 members of the Lowell FFA, a mix of rural and town residents. A minority actually wants to be farmers. Most aim for careers in the agriculture industry, says advisor Kevin Nugent, himself a Lowell FFA alum.
“It’s just an interest they have, and this gives them an opportunity to explore that interest,” Nugent said. His students compete with other FFA chapters across the state in areas such as marketing, leadership and public speaking. Jacey Culross won a statewide interviewing contest.“I love it,” Jacey said. “Being outside and animals are two of my favorite things.”
Forrest Stoffers, a junior, wants to continue the farming tradition in which he was raised. “Growing up with it, that’s all you know,” Forrest said. “It pretty much grows a love for it.”
The Wittenbach/Wege Center provides an ideal setting for the FFA students to learn and share with younger ones. Situated a short walk from the high school, it comprises 140 acres, about 80 of which are owned by Lowell Area Schools. The 60-acre Wege Preserve is owned and managed by the Land Conservancy of West Michigan.
All kinds of things happen at the center, from snowshoe hiking in winter to a Junior Master Gardener program in summer. Community members are invited to pull garlic mustard or be trained in frog-watching. “It’s getting people in touch with nature,” said Director Meggan Johnson.
Hands on learning – no, really
Elementary students regularly visit the center to enrich their studies. Johnson called it “an extension of what they learn in the classroom. They can see it firsthand.”
About 75 Murray Lake students learned firsthand what a horse’s mane and lamb’s wool feel like, during a week of activities also involving Alto and Bushnell students. They had plenty of questions.
One girl asked Jaycee Culross what her horse, named Tango, was eating. “This is what we call hay,” Jaycee said. “A lot of people think horses like to eat straw, but it’s no good. It’s like eating paper.”
Sophomore Lexie Shaffer showed a 20-year-old Australian miniature pony and asked the children what they would name it. “I would name him Sprinkles!” one girl piped up. A classmate had another idea. “We should call him Charlie Horse,” he said.