At the November 2019 Farm Based Education Conference in Maryland, a workshop was offered to discuss the challenges of life cycle questions that inevitably come up at farm-based programs. Though a small group was anticipated for this discussion, almost 50 people gathered and filled the short session with questions and experiences. The group discussed roles, content, values, and communication strategies to cover the difficult yet necessary questions that any farm that has animals on it must learn to address. From that workshop, the group asked to continue the discussion. A new Facebook group has been formed to continue this conversation. Join the group Life Cycles on the Farm - Sex & Death & More and let’s continue this dialogue!
A farm is an amazing space for students to learn about all the stages of life. Animals breed, babies are born, and animals die. Whether you have bees, chickens or cows (or any other wonderful farm animal), you WILL be asked at some point by a smart and inquisitive student about these life stages. You will get questions about where the lambs come out of the momma sheep or how the lambs get into the momma sheep to begin with. You may be asked if all chicken eggs are baby chicks or why the bull is trying to get on top of the cow or even on top of the horse. If you raise animals for meat, you will be asked about how you get the meat and why do you have to kill the animal to get it. These questions and the follow up conversations can be powerful and positive experiences for a child to understand how the world around them works. What better places to learn about all the life cycles than on a farm, where you can see it all at once?
Keep your answers factual, direct, and age appropriate, but also succinct. Really listen to the student’s question and don’t embellish in your own mind what you think they are asking. When a 1st grader asks where the baby pigs come from on their moms, don’t mention a stork or magic. You can be honest and say something like ”That is a good question. Piglets come out of their sow mother through the birth canal on her back end. It is different but next to where her poop comes out which we prefer to call manure.” With these 2 sentences, you have directly answered the students questions, introduced new vocabulary (piglet, sow, and manure) and you have demystified both birth and poop. This may be enough information for this student at this point. If they ask more questions, continue to keep the answer specific and brief using accurate language.
In some cases, the adults that come along with the field trip visiting your farm know very little about animal reproduction and harvesting of animal protein. Adults can sometimes take you down a rabbit hole of questions that are not age appropriate or of interest to the student group you are working with. Remember who is your primary audience. If you have group of giggly 4th graders and a chaperone that wants to argue the ethics of meat production in our country, acknowledge their questions respectfully and ask if you can discuss it at the break or after the group activities. These adults can also try to help by answering questions, but unintentionally complicate the situation. So, be aware of who is asking and who is answering. The more you can answer questions directly and accurately, the more the students and adults will move onto other topics.
If you are concerned about how you will answer these questions and don’t want to be caught off-guard, consider thinking through the answers as they specifically apply to your farm. Even practice how you want to respond. Reach out to the teachers you are working with and discuss how they have addressed these questions and how they would like you to address them. As a guest speaker to the students, you may be in a better position to answer these questions than the teacher, who can be concerned about reactions from parents or administration. You are the expert about this, and students will respect your answers.
Want to discuss further? Join a new Facebook group to continue the conversation!