Youth Ag Expo back in McHenry County following COVID-19 cancellations

Farm Bureau event works to connect students to the food, fabrics and farms around them

Betsy Zarko and her daughter, Nora Zarko, talked about their goats from Arrowleaf Farm near Wonder Lake during the McHenry County Farm Bureau's Ag Expo on Wednesday, April 10, 2024.

About 51% of McHenry County acreage is used for farm production, Farm Bureau board member Bruce Meier said.

But just 1% of its residents now live on farms, added Dan Volkers, the bureau manager. That is part of the reason that back in 1988, the local bureau began hosting an ag expo for third and fourth grade students in the county.

“Most of the kids here are generations away from farm life,” Volkers said. “They don’t have the experience of where their food and fibers come from. They don’t connect that with daily life.”

“They can buy beef from local farmers and eggs from local producers. They want to know where their food is coming from.”

—  Katie Vanderstappen, McHenry County Farm Bureau Ag in the Classroom educator

This week, the McHenry County Farm Bureau, a nonprofit that provides farm producers legislative representation for issues surrounding agriculture, hoped to help about 1,300 students make that connection. This week’s expo was also the first held at the fairgrounds since 2018. The 2020 and 2022 events were cancelled because of COVID-19 concerns.

It takes about 200 volunteers to run the three-day event, and many of those are Farm Bureau and 4-H families, Volkers said.

Students from around the county were bused to the county fairgrounds in Woodstock to hear a six-minute presentation on farm animals including cows, goats and sheep; bees; agriculture careers outside farming; and Christmas trees and other crops grown here.

Third and fourth grade students from McHenry County schools got up close and personal with lambs from the April Air farm near Woodstock on Wednesday, April 10, 2024, during the McHenry County Farm Bureau Ag Expo.

“They need to know where [their food] came from,” said Chris McKee of Woodstock, the current McHenry County Farm Bureau president. “How many people don’t understand what goes into what they are eating?”

That slow evolution from McHenry County being majority-farming to a more suburban county can be seen in ways like the dearth of agriculture education programs. Just three school districts offer agriculture courses, Volkers said: Harvard, Marengo and Alden-Hebron.

“Hebron just started theirs again, with 18 kids, with a total [school] population of 200 students,” Meier said.

Continuing to educate students on how they are connected to the land is part of the reason Katie Vanderstappen took on the Ag in the Classroom educator role at the Farm Bureau. A former Spanish teacher and dairy farmer, she now goes to classrooms around the county to teach about how agriculture ties to everyday life. Over the course of a year, she meets with about 3,000 students, mostly in the younger grades.

One of her most requested lessons is about pumpkin pie, showing students how pumpkins grown in Illinois and the county may end up as part of their holiday dinners, Vanderstappen said.

When she does speak to students in older grades, the questions and sessions tend to be more about jobs, Vanderstappen said.

Four-week-old piglets from the McKee Farm near Woodstock were among the baby animals used to educate area elementary students during the McHenry County Farm Bureau's Ag Expo on Wednesday, April 10, 2024.

That makes sense, as according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service, 10% of U.S. employment is in the agriculture, food and related industries. That number includes restaurants, food stores, textiles manufacturing and food manufacturing.

Adults in the county may be more aware of where their food comes from because of the popularity of food-to-table programs and smaller producers selling directly to customers through farmers markets, Vanderstappen said.

“They can buy beef from local farmers and eggs from local producers. They want to know where their food is coming from,” she said.