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POTOMAC - Barb McNally asks a group of fourth-graders what beef product they most enjoy.

Steak is easily agreed upon, but after that, well, the answers are less about taste and more about misunderstanding.

Bacon, a few kids shout.

Ham, like in hamburgers, others say.

Uh, no.

This confusion, however, is precisely the reason that McNally and a handful of women in the Blackfoot Cattle Women's organization converged on the Iverson ranch in Potomac to spend a recent day with kids from Lowell Elementary School in Missoula.

"We're telling our ranch stories, of course, but we also want to provide an opportunity for kids from the city to see where food comes from," says Charlotte Iverson, who ranches 280 acres with her husband Denny.

The cattle women have been doing this sort of education over the past 10 years, often for more rural schools.

"We did want to bring it to Missoula, though, because they're probably the kids who are most separated from farming and ranching," says rancher Jody Wills.

The opportunity is a good one, Lowell teacher Greg Imhoff says.

"This gives us a chance to work on some of this material in the classroom - where food comes from and such - and then for the kids to see it in practice," he says. "I'm sure you'll hear some pretty funny stuff out of the kids, but they're really excited to be here. I don't think a lot of them have ever been out of the city."

Pretty funny stuff indeed.

"OK, hamburgers don't come from ham," Jody Wills patiently explains. "Hamburgers come from cows. But do you know why they're called hamburgers?

Because they come from Hamburger?

Close, so very close.

"People in Hamburg, that's a place in Germany, well, they decided to start making little patties out of ground-up beef," said Wills, who is wearing a hat that mimics a hamburger. "And that's why it's a hamburger but doesn't have anything to do with ham."

*********

It's called Farm Day and it works like this. School kids - in this case third- and fourth-graders from Lowell, along with teachers and chaperones - gather and make their way around seven stations, where they learn the rudiments of ranching.

The stations have kid-friendly names like "Wow that Cow" and "The Perfect Cheeseburger," but the information ranges from comical to scientific.

Yes, the Blackfoot ladies would love to sell you a burger, but they know there's more to it than that.

"I think what they do out here is a real service, in part because there's nothing like hands-on learning for kids," says John Rimel, who helped with a segment on horseshoeing and is also a member of the Kiwanis Club, which paid for the buses needed to bring the kids out from town.

The kids piled off the buses dressed for a day outside - long pants, sweatshirts, the occasional ski hat. They met a group of ranchers dressed as one might expect - jeans or Carhartts, work boots, canvas jackets and hats with logos like "Beef Spoken Here."

The kids heard some instruction about minding their manners around farm animals.

"The animals are going to be a little leery of you," Wills says. "They might see you sorta like they see a coyote."

Then the kids split into seven groups and headed off to the learning stations.

Part of Imhoff's class started with the pigs, where Colton Coughlin holds forth about the wonders of swine.

Coughlin leads the kids to a pen where nine Yorkshire-cross piglets scampered about, spinning circles and leaping into the air like four-footed ballerinas.

"That one looks sort of like Wilbur," one student says in reference to E.B. White's classic, "Charlotte's Web."

There's something about the cuteness factor of piglets that makes their impending transformation into ham and bacon feel tragic, but the kids are polite about the topic.

"I wouldn't mind taking one of them home," says Courtney Lozeau.

Alas, these 8-week-old piglets are home until the Western Montana Fair rolls round, when they'll weigh 250 pounds and fetch top dollar.

Beyond the cute factor of piglets, the crowning achievement in pig viewing is that inevitable moment when a rather largish swine takes a rather largish poop.

"That's awesome!" shouts Brandon Soules.

Indeed.

**********

The next stop is Barb McNally's sober explanation of the merits of beef cattle.

That quickly produces the confusion of what exactly beef is and where it comes from, but McNally eventually moves the discussion on to how rangeland is used in the United States and the various uses made of those parts of a cow that aren't choice cuts of meat.

"Does anybody know how many footballs you can make from one cow hide?" McNally asks.

Five? Ten?

"Well, you can get about 20 footballs from a 1,000-pound steer," McNally said. "I bet you can get a whole lot of baseballs, too."

McNally then passes around a bag of marshmallows, noting that their chemical makeup involves hooves, a fact that does nothing to stem the gustatory glee of the students.

After telling the kids about other uses for cattle parts in crayons, hand creams, makeup and dining china, McNally leaves them with a joke:

"Do you know why cows have bells? Because their horns don't work."

The next station involves two women named Sheila - Hatch and Manley - and an extremely tall horse named Jake.

The kids get the lowdown on trimming a horse's hooves, sizing them for shoes and the location of the part of the foot inexplicably known as the frog.

"Why would you have a frog on a horse foot?" asks Jordan Hanson.

************

After horses, it's time for a break with ice cream sandwiches, another delicacy for which cows can claim some credit.

"I never knew how much stuff really comes from a cow," said Elena Null.

After the ice cream break, Heather Wills - Jody's daughter - introduces the kids to a mother cow named Sally and her calf.

Sally is a brown cow, so Courtney Lozeau asks the obvious question: "Does she make chocolate milk?"

It's possible Courtney is pulling Heather's leg, and her question prompts a round of absurdist inquiries.

"How can you tell if a cow has regular milk or skim milk?" asks Morgan Erp, a wiry, enthusiastic chap never at a loss for words.

The questions prompt a pretty good discussion on the differences between beef and dairy cattle, and the kids are thrilled when Wills offers them the chance to name the calf.

"You could name it Maddy, because in Greek that means mighty," said Courtney.

"I'd name it Viper," said Brandon, who, it turns out, has a code name of Viper.

About which, he says: "You should just call me Brandon."

Viper talk aside, the students listen as Wills explains the life of a mother cow, who is "always pregnant or taking care of a calf."

"The baby will stay with mom for about six months, but she's also pregnant at that time, too, so she moves the calf along to make room for the next one," Wills said.

Sally won't turn her rump around sufficiently to reveal her brand, but Wills explains that process, too, including the use of freeze branding, which the kids see as counter-intuitive but fascinating.

"Can we brand one?" shouts Erp.

"Not today, nope," says Wills.

*********

As the day passes, the kids absorb the fundamentals of cattle ranching - feeding, vaccinating, branding, keeping predators at bay.

Here is what they don't learn: That many of the cattle women actually work in town, making extra money to keep the family ranches afloat.

"It's great to show them this way of life, but it would be hard to explain to them why it doesn't really work the way it used to," said Charlotte Iverson. "A lot of us women are working in town to keep our places working."

Jody Wills' other daughter, Cereta, works in Seattle for Accenture, but during much of the year, she flies back to Montana nearly every weekend to help out on the ranch.

"Without all of us working, it won't pencil out," she said. "But it's worth it, because I love the ranch."

Her mother loves ranch life to the core, and she exudes that love as she explains the perfect burger to a group of schoolchildren who are increasingly looking forward to actually having some for lunch.

"There's almost nothing in a good life that a ranch can't provide," Jody Wills said. "And that definitely includes a burger."

When it's finally time for the burgers, the students dig in, but not without a few lingering questions about the provenance of the meal.

"Are you sure this isn't a deer?" one boy says.

The day ends with a lesson in making butter and roping steers. The butter effort involves repeated shaking of a cream-filled jar, and some kids actually produce a creamy substance that none really believe to be butter because, as everyone knows, butter comes in boxes.

But steer roping - actually it's a fake head perched on a hay bale - is something everyone can fully believe in.

That faith doesn't necessarily lead to successful rope work by too many students, but they're relentless in their efforts.

"You caught yourself," Rayann Lindbom says to a classmate.

Turns out, it's a good day to be a steer head as the rope generally falls in a helpless pile short of the target.

But it's also a good day to be a kid from Lowell School, alive in the bright sunshine, stepping through the dark soil and learning useful things.

"It's a pretty great day, don't you think?" says Morgan Erp.

Reporter Michael Moore can be reached at 523-5252 or by e-mail at mmoore@missoulian.com. Photography editor Kurt Wilson can be reached at 523-5244 or at kwilson@missoulian.com.

 

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