State Fair season is upon us. People walk the streets of the state fairgrounds searching for the best food on a stick, great entertainment and the latest freebies. Fairs can also offer an opportunity for livestock producers of all ages to educate whether it is at the pork food stand, in the barns or at an exhibit.
During the Illinois State Fair, I caught up with the Illinois Pork Ambassador Eileen Urish at the Piglets on Parade birthing center. As a coordinated effort between the Illinois Pork Producers Association and the University of Illinois, fair visitors can walk into a farrowing unit with six sows and their litters in individual gestation stalls.
The IPPA’s birthing center is located just off the main gate as part of the Farmers’ little helper exhibit. Jason Propst, Illinois pork producer and IPPA president, says it is a great way for visitors to see how all the different segments of agriculture tie into each other. “In the birthing center, you can see what goes on and what happens from that standpoint. You can realize why we have stalls and how to prevent the mother pigs from rolling over and smashing the pigs.”
The sows, close to farrowing, arrive two days before the official start of the Illinois State Fair. Urish, county pork ambassadors, IPPA members and a team of veterinarians are all on hand to assist the sows. “We started off bringing in the pigs last Wednesday. Since then, it has been non-stop having baby pigs. So, I am a little worn out from having them. I feel like I have been in labor six times,” jokes Urish.
Urish knows firsthand the hard work of America’s pig farmers, growing up on a hog farm near Kilbourne, Ill. However, her time at the birthing center, interacting with visitors, is a learning experience for this college student as well.
It is true consumers want to learn about how food animals are cared for on the farm. Sifting through online forums, headlines and social media, it appears consumers are only concerned with sow housing, antibiotic use in farm animals and that livestock production is destroying the planet.
As visitors enter the barn, Urish explains the individual farrowing stalls and the purpose of the bars are to protect people, sows and pigs. Quietly observing the individuals walking through the facilities, the visitors — young and old — just enjoy watching the piglets sleep, eat and wiggle their tails.
Urish welcomes any question, and answers them with care. “It has been a positive interaction so far. We have a lot of good questions. People are really surprised at some of the techniques we have. This is a good way to clear up the miscommunications.”
While the discussion of the gestation stalls did come up, Urish says the top three questions were about the welfare of the pigs — a concern that consumers and hog farmers share.
- When were they born?
- How much do the moms weigh?
- Are the sows comfortable?
The cutest questions are the ones about the runt of the litter. Adults and kids are concerned the littlest member of the litter is a loner or not receiving the same nutrients as the others.
As Urish says, “no question is a bad question.” She invites all consumers to talk with a farmer to learn the facts about their food whether it is at a fair or online.