Ag Education

A great opportunity for area fourth graders

by tj wierenga

Montana is one of the most rural states in the nation, and if asked, most of the inhabitants of the rest of the country would assume that all Montana kids grow up either on a ranch or right beside one, roping cattle, feeding pigs, gathering eggs, and speaking knowledgeably about the importance of honey bees and crop rotation and production. While that assumption may be slightly off, there is a Billings area program in operation that brings it a little bit closer to reality.

      A combined effort of the Northern International Livestock Exposition (the NILE), the Yellowstone County Extension Office, and the Yellowstone County Soil Conservation Districts, with additional support from the Yellowstone County Commissioners and Wendy’s of Montana, the ‘Ag Ed’ program is a concentrated 3-day presentation on a wide variety of agricultural education and information for area 4th graders. An average of 2,000 excited 4th graders from Billings and surrounding areas (including a contingent of homeschoolers) work their way through a wide variety of booths set up to teach kids how their daily lives are affected by agriculture… but you couldn’t prove it is “work” by them. Booths are set up to be both fun and educational. Says Justin Mills with the NILE, “This is a great age for kids to learn about agriculture; they’re very impressionable. It is an opportunity put them face to face with agriculture where they learn about it in a fun way.”

     “Hopefully the things we’ll talk about will stick in their minds, how Agriculture affects their daily lives. In the morning they eat bacon that comes from pigs, and sugar on their cereal might come from sugar beets from the Yellowstone Valley. Their shoes contain leather from Montana cows, and the hamburger that they eat might come from the same place. It’s all related to Agriculture that we see in our Yellowstone Valley and in Montana.” 

     Roni Baker with the Yellowstone County Extension Office has been working with the program for over fifteen years, and enthuses, “I think it’s a fun, educational opportunity - truly, where does your food, our clothes, all of those kinds of things come from? I think the kids come out of it with more appreciation for agriculture and products.”

     “We set up multiple stations,” continued Mills, “the whole thing lasts 2 hours or so for each group of kids. One station will have sugar beets, one will have corn and talk about how we utilize corn in our lives, and we’ll have the Beekeepers talking about honeybees. The kids will see some animals, sheep and pigs and different things. When they take a break, they can come into the cattle barn and see the cattle that are there for the NILE.” Other stations include the Montana Beef Council discussing meat and by-products, range management and habitat stations, corn silage, and local crops identification and utilization.

     “One of the stations that I usually run is with animals”, explained Baker. “We bring in market animals and talk about the products that we get from the animals – cow that we get meat from versus cows that we get milk from, for example. The kids have said, “You mean hamburger doesn’t just appear at McDonalds?” and “You eat that?!” Yeah, that’s what it’s for, these are things we need! For example, people with diabetes need to have insulin or they wouldn’t live either. It’s really fun to have them think about it and talk about it, there are so many products, and kids come out of there knowing so much more about agriculture – it’s very hands on, so they can see it, touch it, and feel it.”

     The program is free for the kids who attend the informative, entertaining experience. The Conservation District takes care of busing costs, the County Extension Service helps with providing workshops and organizing the educational aspects of the event, and volunteers within NILE help with planning and coordination.

     The NILE is a non-profit organization, 501(c)5 dedicated to the promotion of livestock, youth education and respect for the western culture. Begun first in 1967 at Pays Auction Yards with an event to showcase the region’s vast livestock industry, the new event was named Northern International Livestock Exposition, which over the years has been shortened by convenience to the acronym “NILE.” The NILE ProRodeo is currently ranked among the world’s top 50 rodeos (based on prize money payout) and draws top contestants in all seven professional rodeo events, as cowboys and cowgirls across the nation compete to earn a slot in the National Finals Rodeo (NFR). This year marks the 42nd annual event from October 10 through 16, 2009. For more information about the NILE, check out their website at  www.TheNile.org or  call 406-256-2495.

TJ Wierenga lives in Billings with her husband and two preschoolers.