A couple days a year, an enormous white carnival-like tent at Tamiami Park transforms into an agricultural institution of learning for a few hundred Miami-Dade third graders who attend the Youth Fair.
There are chickens, sheep and cows galore — and swarms of smiling children.
“It’s exciting and it’s very educational,” said Ryan Chica, an 8-year-old from Mother of Christ Catholic School. “I like the bug presentation.”
Chica joins his classmates in red-and-blue straw cowboy hats as they walk from a booth that educated them about the importance of honeybees, to Cowtown, an interactive multistation booth with cows, corn and ice cream. The song Old MacDonald Had a Farm plays intermittently on a loudspeaker overhead.
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The Howdy Program – part of the Miami-Dade County Fair & Exposition’s curriculum since 1993 – has taught elementary students the fundamentals of agriculture with in a hour-long walking tour visiting booths set up by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Miami-Dade 4-H, Florida Farm Bureau, J&P Apiary and Cowtown.
“It’s the first time some of them get to see some of this up close and personal and not just in a textbook or on a computer,” said Ismael Ramos, competitive exhibits manager for the fair. “The program teaches them that these products don’t just come off a store shelf.”
Cowtown, a decked-out frontier show from South Carolina built out of an 18 wheeler, is the program’s main attraction. Kids learn how to milk a cow, churn butter and make ice cream by hand.
“Are you ready to milk a cow?” said Mary Ann Farrel, who plays a dairy farmer in the show. “My name is Farmer Mary Ann and today we’re going to milk a Jersey cow. I’m going to teach you a little bit about the parts of the animal, so you can understand where your milk comes from and all of your ice cream and cheese.”
One by one, the classes of students meander to her cow-milking showcase. They sit on painted white milk cans and watch classmates get their chance to touch the cow.
“Thanks for the cheese. Thanks for the ice cream,” said Victor Lopez, 9, who grins as he pets the cow’s belly.
Farrel moves a silver milk bucket under the cow’s teat, reaches in and pulls down. Milk squirts out. Victor follows suit, almost naturally.
“Have you done this before?” Farrel said. “You’re very good at this. That’s it, you have to ask your parent for a cow.”
Michael Sandlofer, owner of Cowtown, oversees the action at another stand within their booth that guides students through the process of shelling and grinding corn.
But before the students pick up cobs of corn to mill, Sandlofer spoke about the necessity of having good soil.
“It’s important for children to learn nothing grows in dirt but weeds,” Sandlofer said.
“We want them to learn natural fertilizers, not chemicals. Here we’re using worms.”
He digs his hand into a 6-foot box of rich, black soil on a wagon. He lets some soil fall through his fingers and stops once he finds a worm.
“It’s important for kids to see this,” he added, explaining that the worm castings fertilize the soil organically. “You have to build and respect soil.”
The Howdy Program tours are led by the fair’s ‘ag’ ambassadors, who are all Miami-Dade students studying agriculture education.
Ashley Franco, 17, is a second-year ambassador and a student at Felix Varela Senior High School’s veterinary science magnet program, located at 15255 SW 96th St.
“Throughout my years of high school, I’ve seen other students participate in this program. I’ve always been like, ‘Man, this is pretty cool. I should try it out.’” Franco said. “And here I am. It’s good to teach other kids about agriculture.”
Other stations on the tour: beef bingo, where kids learn about byproducts from cows; a hand-washing station featuring a puppet show about spreading bacteria; and seed station where 4-H’ers give students bean seeds to grow.
The kids drop one bean against a most cotton ball in a small plastic zippered bag, string the bag with a pre-made hole on yarn, tie it around their neck and tuck it in their shirt. Their bodies will act as like a greenhouse and help the seed grow.
“It’s stuff that you would teach in school, but we try to make it more fun so that they enjoy learning it,” said Kimberly Lynch, 17, whose been involved in 4-H for more than a decade. “Here it’s hands on and creative.”
John Genztel, a commercial beekeeper in Homestead, manned his honeybee station with his daughter at the fair. As Ryan and his classmates walked up to the table, Genztel picked up a small, clear case with white paneling that holds about 1,000 bees.
“They only live 45 days roughly. They wear their wings out and pass on,” Gentzel said. “Their wings flap 11,000 times a minute, 183 times a second.” Gentzel explained to the children that the honeybee population has diminished because mites, beetles and viruses have been killing them in recent years.
“Everyone see the honeybees?” he said. The students crowded around him and stared at the bees crawling on the honeycomb. “Without them doing the pollination of fruits and vegetables, we wouldn’t have anything to eat.”
Patty Chica, Ryan’s mom and a parent chaperone for the field trip, stood behind her son’s class during Gentzel’s presentation. She carried a roll of stickers with a cartoon of a honeybee on it in her hand to give to the kids afterward. She looked at her son, who was front and center at the table.
“He’s all into animals. That’s his love,” Patty said. “It’s just good for them because when you do something a little more exciting, they learn more and they’re actually more involved.”
The program runs three tours beginning at 9:30 a.m. on March 16 to 17 at the fairgrounds, 10901 Coral Way. The next set of tours will run on March 31. They’re scheduled on a first come, first serve basis. Registration opened last October and was filled quickly.
Each student receives a souvenir T-shirt to remember their experience. It says: “I found out about agriculture at the fair.”
“It’s a really great experience that I would have wanted in elementary school,” Lynch said.