On a warm Friday morning in September, Spencer Baldwin gathered with about a dozen children outside of Marnie Simons Elementary School in Hamburg, Iowa.
The children do chores on the school’s mini-farm. It's a chicken coop and pens for pigs, sheep and goats.
Baldwin, the farm school coordinator for the Hamburg Community School District, told the students it was time to trim the chickens’ wings. It’s not vital to the chickens’ health and it doesn’t hurt them, he said, but it will keep the birds from flying over the fence and into the woods.
Children took turns holding the chickens as Baldwin trimmed their wings. Baldwin even let a couple of the older kids take a turn with the scissors.
“OK, we’ll spread that out,” Baldwin said as he spread out one of the chicken’s wings. “Bam. Bam. See, it doesn’t even care.”
The small southwest Iowa school district has 50 chickens, four sheep, three goats and two piglets. Students learn the basics of livestock anatomy and diet. But Baldwin said there’s a larger lesson.
“How to treat the animals, how to interact with them,” Baldwin said. “Especially these little kids, my kindergarteners out here, when we were first out here, they liked to run and chase them. They don’t mean anything by it, they just want to be around them. They want to pet them, they want to snuggle them.”
Baldwin said the younger children quickly learned not to stress the animals by chasing them. The older kids, like fifth-grader Kayla McIntosh, put in some real farm work. She wants to help deliver the sheep’s babies this spring.
“I’ve never lived on a farm,” McIntosh said, “so I actually want to experience it.”
Most children in the town of 1,100 people don’t live on a farm. But the majority of Hamburg’s students get in on farm school. Some teachers say it’s affected their classes in a good way. First-grade teacher Michele Hendrickson said her students gravitate towards reading books about farm animals.
“They do dive into the farm animals and want to learn more about the chickens,” Hendrickson said. “More so, the animals that we've had on the farm have sparked an interest in their reading.”
She said her students have become more productive. They’re eager to finish tasks so they can help out on the farm.
But it’s not all cute chicks and playful swine. Hamburg Superintendent Mike Wells said the farm teaches children a work ethic. And maintaining a farm at a school is a lot of work.
“On weekends, who takes care of the animals? You have to set up a system of kids who are dependable, who come in and feed and take care of the animals,” Wells said. If someone doesn’t lock up the chickens at night, raccoons or possums could kill them.
This is the farm school’s fifth year. It started after a group of students incubated some chicken eggs. Those eggs became chicks that grew up and needed a home. Students had to get special permission from the city council because local laws forbid livestock in town.
“All these buildings out here were built by kids,” Wells said. “They're not perfect, but it was their design and they built it.”
Wells said confidence is one of the key life skills he loves to see students take away. He recalled a time when a fourth-grade student, Tessa, was out on the farm with a friend during recess and one of the school district’s goats went into labor. The goat was struggling. Wells said he was at another school district where he also serves as the superintendent, so Tessa sent him a picture.
“The baby was breech,” said Wells, meaning its rear end was trying to come out first. Wells talked with Tessa on the phone and walked her through what she needed to do. She had to reach inside of the mother goat, turn the kid around and deliver it.
“To this day, this girl still talks about that event. That changed her life,” Wells said. “She wants to be a vet now. She’s very confident she can do it.”
Hamburg Community School District is not the only one with a small farm. A few other Iowa schools have small farm schools, too. Several schools in Columbia, Missouri, raise chickens.
The concept is something Iowa 4-H Youth Development Senior Field Manager Ben Pullen said he dreamed of doing when he was a public school teacher. He said he sees it as a mechanism to develop life skills like responsibility and a basic understanding of science and economics.
“It becomes that mechanism for making things real, making those concepts become more solid for youth,” Pullen said.
Pullen said the number of children who live on farms and raise livestock for 4-H projects has been shrinking over the years.
“Which is where having these special projects, having these different opportunities allows for youth to engage in these things that maybe didn't have that opportunity otherwise,” Pullen said.
And with the number of farms also decreasing, people fall out of touch with where their food comes from. Natalie Carroll, a professor of agricultural science, education and communication at Purdue University, said a school farm can help make city kids understand farm life.
“Our food doesn't just come from the store. It doesn't just show up magically,” Carroll said. “And they (children) gain an appreciation for how much it takes to raise food, the choices that have to be made.”
That’s an important lesson at Hamburg’s farm school. The piglets — the kids call them “Breakfast” and “Lunch” — will be slaughtered at the end of the school year. Baldwin, the farm school coordinator, said the topic will come up.
“It can be a tough lesson to learn,” Baldwin said. “But it's a good thing to learn, especially in an agricultural community here. A lot of them have been exposed to that.”
He said a few of the younger children get emotional, but the older kids help them through. Even those tough lessons feed into a hands-on education in agriculture. It’s all part of a window into farm life for young children.