A couple weeks ago Mother Nature flirted with us, dropping a sheet of snow and then warming up the next day to take it all away. That hint of a windy, wintery mix reminded me my son will probably start asking if we can go to our local children’s museum soon. While they feature an iconic Mama T. Rex outside along with an impressive archaeological dig, we usually save our explorations for the indoor portion during the winter season.
Maybe I would be more game to visit our facility in the summer, if they featured a farm like the Children’s Museum of Southern Minnesota. Since the museum first opened in Mankato more than four years ago, agriculture education has been a major theme with a “Grow-it” gallery and “Ag Lab” inside, but it wasn’t until 2016 when the museum took the experience outside, that real livestock became a fixture on the museum’s farm.
Today the museum has 10,000 square feet outside dedicated to ag education, with gardens, crop plots and a barn with chickens and yes, pigs.
“Every year in the spring we bring in two weanling pigs and we raise them to market weight and donate that food to the food shelf,” says Deb Johnson, senior director of museum experiences and environment.
The Alltech Farm Experience exhibit wouldn’t be possible without several industry players. Alltech and Hubbard Feeds are a monetary sponsor and donate all the feed for the animals as well. Hog Slat donated and installed the mister, feeder and waterer. The Minnesota Pork Board also sponsors the pig program and provides training and talking points to the staff. The farm is USDA licensed and has a local veterinarian that consults with the farm. Both the farm manager and the farm intern are Pork Quality Assurance certified.
“Our hogs are kept in our outdoor barn area. The front is an open fence viewing area, so children can watch our pigs and observe how quickly they grow. They can watch us take care of them,” says Rochelle Koberoski, farm manager at the museum. “We talk to them about how the pigs grow, what they’re fed, how we keep them cool when the weather is hot. We have a fan system and an automatic feeder and waterer. We can explain all those things to the children and show them how they work and how they help our pigs grow healthy and to a market size.”
Since the farm opened, Minnesota pork producers such as Christensen Farms and Schwartz Farms have graciously donated pigs for the exhibit. This year the farm featured a Yorkshire gilt and a Duroc gilt, courtesy of Compart Family Farms of Nicollet, Minn.
With this year’s pigs being from registered stock and having more ear notches than the pigs in previous years, there was some discussion surrounding that. Other conversations the staff try to have with the children include what the pigs are being raised for, all the different products that come from pigs besides meat, and how resourceful manure is, going back into the food cycle to help crops grow.
Lori Stevermer, who has been the liaison between Hubbard/Alltech and the Children’s Museum of Southern Minnesota and who helps coordinate the pig donations each year, says the exhibit is not only a great opportunity to highlight agriculture to young children but also to help them make the connection to what they see at the museum and what they might see as they drive through the countryside.
“The staff has been great to work with. Late each winter we start our discussions about spring activities, and I start thinking about a farm to donate the pigs. We have so many great pig farmers in the area it’s been pretty easy to contact a different farm each year,” Stevermer says. “This spring my husband, Dale, and I did a training session with the CMSM staff about pig farming activities and Dale also talked about his crops and what he’s doing with cover crops. This was really helpful for the staff because they get questions from visitors and want to be able to answer them correctly.”
Johnson says while the farm exhibit caters to children from birth to 10-years-old, it’s not unusual to have older visitors, from teenagers to grandparents. Each year 100,000 people visit the museum, with a majority coming through during the summer to take in the farm exhibit.
“Over the course of the summer we anticipate upward of 60,000 people that come through our doors,” Johnson says.
After the pigs reach market weight, they are processed at Vernon Center Meat Market and the meat is donated to ECHO Food Shelf. This year the museum donated 350 pounds of pork to help supplement the food shelf’s protein supply this fall. Since the program started, Johnson says they have donated more than 1,000 pounds of pork to ECHO.
“Of course, that’s very well received by the food shelf and the community because it is serving a high need,” Johnson says. “Blue Earth County has a higher than average need and so we feel great about being able to supply a good, lean source of protein to our local food shelf.” Mankato is the county seat for Blue Earth County.
This is definitely something the Mankato community and Minnesota pork industry should feel good about and while it will be close to six months before pigs are back on their farm, I am already thinking a road trip with the kiddos is on the docket next summer.