Friday, The Boy and I volunteered to help the Alberta Lamb Producers show groups of elementary school students what the sheep industry is. There is a large exhibition with booths from the 'big producers' - canola, beef, dairy, poultry, pork - and room for some additional demonstrations as well - we were 'little critters', and the 'eat locally and think about your food miles' people from the Alberta Government had a really neat inflatable globe right in the center of everything and showed kids the difference between the honey you get from, say, Tofield, and the honey you get from Australia. Buying local makes sense!
My job was to convey to the kids a three point message: meet the farmer (so you can see who raises your food), explain what sheep need from us, and explain what products we receive from sheep.
Here's the blurb I ended up with (given about every fifteen minutes all day!):
Hello Grade Fives! (or whatever grade they are)
*You have to imagine me standing in a pen of about five sheep, emphatically gesturing and shouting to be heard over the general din.
I live on a farm about an hour west of Edmonton where we have about 15 sheep. The lady over there, who you'll go see in a bit, has over ONE HUNDRED sheep - and all their babies! And this boy lives with me 'cause he's my kid, and he actually does most of the chores at our house so he's a shepherd too - anybody who takes care of sheep is a shepherd!
I am here today to tell you that A HAPPY SHEEP IS A TASTY SHEEP! Did you know that? It's true! What do you think a sheep needs to be happy? (Lift up some hay) ... kids usually shout 'hay' or 'grass' ... yes, they need hay to eat, hay is just dried grass and they will eat it when there's no fresh stuff around, but in the summertime they like to go out and eat the fresh grass - so they are the lawnmowers! No mowing the grass, they do it for you! What else do sheep need? (point to the water bucket) "Water!" yup, they need fresh water and what else? Grain ... yes, some sheep eat grain, not all of them but some do. Some kids also mention pellets, and I usually pointed out the table where they could see the different kinds of feed sheep can eat. (Hold up the bucket of mineral). What's this? (usually nobody guesses) ... what do you put on your french-fries, besides ketchup? Salt! Right, sheep need salt and special minerals, it's like taking their vitamins every day.
Okay, now when it's time for the sheep to go to bed at night, do we need to tuck them into a nice warm bed and cover them up with a blanket? NO! Because sheep wear their blankets all the time! They have nice thick coats of wool (point to the unshorn sheep - or the plastic model of an unshorn sheep, late on Friday afternoon!). They can be outside all winter and be just fine wearing their nice big coats. But if we don't give them a haircut in the springtime, that'd be like sending you out to the playground in your snowsuit in July! Would you like that? No way, and neither do the sheep. They really need their wool taken off so they are not roasting all summer.
So we give the sheep food and water and haircuts, and in return they give us wool (The Boy would walk along the rail with a sample of wool, wearing fingerless gloves made from our wool) ... wool is a wonderfully useful renewable resource. Have you talked about renewable resources yet in class? (expanded on this for the older kids, sometimes mentioning that sheep can use marginal land that wouldn't be able to support grain or even cattle, so it's a good use of land that couldn't be used otherwise.) Some resources, like oil, aren't renewable - when it's gone, it's gone - but there's a new crop of wool every spring and the sheep are really happy for us to take it. Does it hurt to give them a haircut? Not really .. sometimes they get a little nick but it's just like a shaving cut and it doesn't sting for long (we had one return from the shearing demo with an obvious cut so had to mention this). What can we use wool for? We can make mittens (hold up my fingerless-gloved hands), or hats and scarves, blankets, sleeping bags, you can even insulate your house with wool, that's a good environmentally sound choice and much nicer than the itchy pink stuff! Over on the other side we have a place where you can see some more things you can do with wool. (The cowboy hat was a big hit, most had no idea felt was wool.) So using wool is a good choice, it's not wasteful - there's lots of it and there'll be lots more!
What else do sheep give us? A happy sheep is a TASTY sheep right? So they give us meat. Who eats lamb meat at their house? (We had at least one in every group!) It's pretty good, eh? Not a whole lot different than cow - if you eat cow, you'd probably also eat lamb. (And to the occasional objection "but they're cute!" my reply is "so are baby cows, but I bet you eat at McDonald's, eh?") (And to the very occasional comment about slaughter, I mentioned that it's actually against the law to hurt them at the end, it has to be quick and not hurt, and so we honour the sheep by taking good care of them through their lives, and then by being grateful for the life they share with us at the table.)
Now there are THREE products we can get from sheep - anyone know what the third one is? (some could guess - although occasionally I got 'lanolin' which was an awesome surprise) Milk! Yes, you can milk a sheep (at which point The Boy often said "yup, I milked that one!" which was true, his ewe lamb was in the pen and we had milked her when her baby was born and wouldn't nurse!). It's a bit harder than milking a cow (some had seen the cow and the milking demo so miming grabbing big cow teats with my whole fist vs using two fingers to milk out a little teeny sheep teat was quickly understood). There are dairy sheep, just like there are dairy cows, and they are bred for milking ... none of these are dairy sheep. There are some traditional cheeses made from sheep's milk, like feta (lots of nods from the teachers there).
So for our sheep to be happy we need to give them good food, clean water, and regular haircuts ... and in return, they give us wool and meat and milk. Now if you go over to the green carpet, we will show you some of the neat things we can do with wool! (over at the green carpet we had a master spinner working with a wheel, and a table with different fibre things out for them to look at ... plus a dressmaker's form with a wool jacket and shawl, and of course, the cowboy hat!)
It was a really long, exhausting day but it was fun. It was really encouraging to see how many people do eat lamb and enjoy it. For the hesitant ones, I usually tell them that it's about as different from beef as turkey is from chicken - you know it's not the same stuff, but it doesn't leap out at you.
And, although I didn't mention this explicitly to the little kids, there were some grownups who came by at the end of the day who knew the actual reason why a happy sheep is a tasty sheep: if you stress an animal, particularly close to slaughter time, the meat doesn't taste as good. Handling our animals gently and treating them kindly, right up until the last moment, is not only the right thing to do - it's the way to get the best product, too. Nice how that works out, eh?