Urban youth gain livestock experience at ISU Research Farm

Giving more youth the chance to learn about livestock and take animals to the fair is the goal behind a project started a decade ago in Monona County.

Known today as “The Breakfast Club,” the project allows youth to keep pigs and broilers at Iowa State University’s Western Research and Demonstration Farm near Castana, Iowa. The pigs are owned by the university, but youth get the full experience of taking care of them and showing them at the fair.

“Our program is very stringent, with high expectations for the youth,” says Melissa Beermann, director for ISU Extension and Outreach in Monona County. “There is a schedule of what they must do every year and it includes signing up for chore rotations and attending educational events.”

Youth sort and weigh pigs, feed and water animals, monitor animal welfare, practice showmanship skills and work as a team with employees of the research farm, county swine superintendents and extension. Participants are expected to exhibit up to three pigs at the Monona County Fair in July and follow herdsmanship guidelines, the 4-H Code of Ethics and participate in fundraising for the project.

The exhibitors pay $30 each to take pigs, which goes toward the expenses incurred by the research farm. The broilers are paid for through donations – parents and the public can buy a broiler for $20, and for each purchase, a second broiler is donated to a local food bank. Last year, 56 whole processed chickens were donated to the Onawa Food4U nonprofit.

“It’s a pretty unique project,” says Chris Beedle, who manages the research farm. “For those who have been in the farming industry, it’s rewarding to see children and parents who are removed from agriculture, become reacquainted.”

Organizers received a grant from ISU Extension and Outreach Agriculture and Natural Resources in 2020 aimed at improving diversity. Through a two-year, $10,000 grant, a partnership was formed with Science Bound – Iowa State’s pre-college through college program that empowers Iowa students of color to pursue degrees and careers in ASTEM (agriculture, science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and education.

Four Science Bound Scholars participated last summer and nine are participating this year.

Jocelyn Ramos, a junior at Denison High School and a Science Bound Scholar, says participating in the pig project last year helped her complete the required summer enrichment hours, while exposing her to something totally new.

“I was able to find my passion by showing pigs,” she says. “I never would have imagined myself doing this, but it really opened my eyes to what’s available.”

Ramos lives in town and credits the pig project for introducing her to careers in agriculture and the possibility of studying agriculture at Iowa State. She was one of four Science Bound members who showed pigs in 2020 and was awarded “newcomer of the year” for her efforts.

Organizers expect a record number of hogs will be taken to the fair in this program, about 115 total, and about 60 broilers.