A soft chorus of “whoas” and “wows” filled the air as 232 first-grade students watched a New Holland skid loader jerk forward and grab straw bales with its metal arms.

As it hoisted the bales over their heads, the students chirped with awe and then clapped as the straw landed on the trailer next to it.

“It’s always fun to see the look on the kids’ faces when they come to see the different animals and machinery,” said Skylar Woods, a sophomore at Middletown High School.

Woods spent Tuesday acting as a tour guide for first-grade students from Middletown Primary School, Myersville Elementary School and Wolfsville Elementary School as they participated in the high school’s annual Agriculture Day. An array of livestock, tractors, plants and an “agriculture olympics” course awaited the students during their visit.

The tradition of hosting Agriculture Day stretches back more than 40 years, said Middletown FFA Adviser Sara Seiser. The need for the event, however, has grown over time, as fewer children live on farms and more live away from food and fiber production.

“More and more, we’re detached from where our food comes from,” Seiser said. “Your food doesn’t come from the back of the grocery store, it comes from farms.”

Student members of the Middletown High School FFA chapter organize and run the event each year. Some brought livestock from their family farms, including a pregnant dairy cow, a flock of chickens and multiple rabbits. Others drove farm equipment to the school with tires so large that two first-graders could comfortably sit inside.

“All of it’s fun. In general, we try to make it so the first-graders can have fun and learn,” said Patty Flook, a sophomore at Middletown High School.

Flook lives on a farm in Wolfsville, but many of the first-grade students had never set foot on a farm before.

Anna Bowman, 7, said she had never been to a farm, but she enjoyed petting the rabbits as they hopped around their pens on Tuesday. FFA members answered her classmates’ questions as the Middletown Primary School students reached their hands through the wire fences to pet sheep, pigs and a calf.

“I like the bunnies, because they’re really soft and cute,” Anna said.

Having the animals there for the students to see and interact with was important to help them understand that pigs and cattle grow into the foods they like to eat, said Amelia Flook, a junior at Middletown High School.

She woke up at 5 a.m. on Tuesday to wash her 7-week-old piglets at her grandmother’s farm in Pennsylvania and drive them down to the event. The piglets weigh 20 pounds each now, but by the Great Frederick Fair in September, they will hopefully be close to 285 pounds.

“All the kids, I do tell them the truth ... I explain that we raise them and we do end up eating some of them. That pork is pigs and beef is cows,” Amelia Flook said.

In general, the first-graders responded well to the information and no one cried when she told them, she said.

But, it’s not just elementary school students who need help understanding how food is produced on farms, she said. At the fair, adults approach her with questions and she’s found that people either don’t understand how the entire food production process works, or they’ve read something misleading.

“I think a lot of people have a misunderstanding of how a lot of things are grown,” Amelia Flook said.

Teaching students where their food and clothing comes from is the point of Agriculture Day. The program targets first-grade students, in particular, because it aligns with what they are also learning in the classroom, including how plants grow.

Ben Ross, 7, used a green marker to write his name on the side of the biodegradable pot, which he then planted a zucchini seed in. He didn’t know what zucchini was, but he had learned to grow corn in his classroom earlier this year.

“You had to bury them in the soil and then you have to water them and give them sunlight and it’s going to take a while,” Ben said.

Catherine Mahoney, a sophomore at Middletown High School, led the students through the activity by first sending them to a large bin of potting soil and then placing the small seeds into their palms.

Mahoney gardens at home and has already completed all three horticulture classes offered at Middletown High School. The FFA chapter picked zucchini seeds because they had a lot left from class, but it’s also a relatively easy plant to grow, she said.

From Ben’s perspective, it was even simpler, “Because it’s fun to see what they’ll grow into and what they’ll look like.”

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Samantha Hogan is the state house, environment, agriculture and energy reporter for The Frederick News-Post.

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