Jacob Schmaling thought he knew what farmers do every day, but the St. John Vianney School eighth-grader got a farm-fresh perspective Tuesday.

Schmaling and the rest of the student body participated in a farming lesson in the school’s parking lot. They interacted with a combine and other farm equipment, learned about types of meat and how cheese is made, and got to meet all kinds of animals, including baby goats, chickens and a border collie named Dolly.

“I’m actually learning a lot,” Schmaling said. “It’s a lot more detailed than I expected. When you think about their job, you just think farmers go out, harvest corn and feed the animals.

“But they have to go through a lot more to be able to do that with all of the technology—how you have to treat and handle the animals and all that. There’s a lot more to this,” he said.

The school’s Parent Teacher Organization put the learning experience together after a year in which most field trips and school speakers had to be canceled because of COVID-19.

PTO President Karlie Wellnitz, who sported denim overalls Tuesday, said she hoped the lesson would teach kids something in a way that went beyond reading and watching videos.

“We’re just really hoping to basically bring a farm to them. We want them to know where their food comes from, to be able to touch and see things again and not be virtual,” Wellnitz said. “We’re just really hoping they have a better connection with the culture that they’re in here in Wisconsin, that should be close to them, but many of them have never touched a chicken.”

Wellnitz said even small details can be fascinating: how often chickens lay eggs, how farmers use technology and the ways farming has changed. Students took a real interest in the topic, she said.

“I think they’re super intrigued by the technology, whether it’s the drones that are being used to check crops or how they use iPads to move irrigators from home,” she said. “It’s not always like the stereotype of Farmer Joe getting out on an old tractor and milking the cows by hand.”

She said some kids were surprised to hear that traditional practices, such as using dogs to herd animals, are still common.

One student who had never held a live hen before giggled when picking up one of the birds.

Others climbed inside the wheels of the combine and held baby goats, proclaiming they were going to tell their parents they needed one as a pet.

Local crop farmer Randy Hughes couldn’t stop smiling Tuesday as the kids bombarded him with questions. He challenged them to husk corn faster than his towering combine, but the kids didn’t stand much of a chance.

“I think that it’s our job to promote agriculture wherever we can,” Hughes said, stopping to laugh with a student.

“Ag is probably 2% of the population. It’s amazing how many people here don’t even have a relative that is a farmer or was a farmer, so it’s good for them to see where their food comes from,” he said.

Hughes’ farm is located south of Janesville on Highway 51 near the Southern Wisconsin Regional Airport. He said the wheel wells on his equipment likely will be nicely polished from the kids climbing inside for pictures.

The kids got Hughes thinking, too.

“It’s good for them to know the different uses of food or corn, and so we tried to do that and explain to them about how many uses there are. And it’s funny—sometimes they would get it, they’d come up with ones I never thought of. One of them is decorations, and then another one was recreation for beanbags.

“Yeah, I never thought about that, so I guess I’m doing just as much learning as teaching out here.”