CRESCO — When it came time to replace aging livestock barns at the Howard County fairgrounds in Cresco, area livestock farmers and ag leaders saw an opportunity to make a good thing even better and, in the process, provide both farm and town youth with a chance for hands-on experience in real-life animal agriculture.

Once a booming program, fair officials had seen swine show participation decline steadily until 2015 when only three exhibitors signed up the swine program.

For the Howard County Agricultural Society, the fair board which owns and operates the Mighty Howard County Fair, this situation presented an opportunity to better engage county youth, families and communities through education about animal agriculture.

Taking the idea even further, plans evolved to include an actual working swine facility designed with the same features as a modern hog barn, complete with biosecurity controls, automatic feed systems, environmental controllers and air-scrubbing technology to minimize dust and odor in the outgoing air.

“The pigs are provided by local farmers and housed full-time in the Ag Education Center, so youth don’t have to live on a farm to take part,” says Gary Sovereign, president of the Howard County fair board. “It’s a brand new concept that enables both farm and town kids to benefit from important hands-on lessons about raising swine.”

Excitement about the new facility has grown and, as a result, participation in the 2016 swine show has grown to more than 10 times the 2015 fair, with 32 youth now raising pigs in the barn.

Along with the improved facility, a new swine show program was implemented which includes mandatory educational sessions featuring industry experts along with good, old character-building animal care chores like cleaning stalls, keeping production records and training their pigs for the show ring.

During fair time, June 22-26, the new space will also house sheep and dairy exhibits and include a live farrowing display. The Ag Education Center includes a central arena with show ring and bleachers for competition judging which will also be available for events throughout the year.

One lesson that is of the utmost importance in pig care is biosecurity. Exhibitors and advisers are required to shower in and shower out and dress in clothing provided in the barn when they come to care for their pigs, just as they would if they were working in a modern barn designed to safeguard the health of the animals.

Observation windows and video feeds have been integrated into the design so those who don’t have direct animal care duties can watch the action.

“As a pork producer myself, I believe that we need to find ways to educate all our youth about working with livestock,” Sovereign says. “It not only gives them responsibility, it helps them understand the importance of animal care and demonstrates the career opportunities provided by Iowa’s booming swine production industry.”

As the project began to take form, the board and organizers searched for similar facilities at other fairgrounds across the country after which they could model the new center.

“We couldn’t find a pattern we could use as a road map, so the board took a leap of faith, worked with local experts, livestock producers and Iowa State Extension to design the center,” Barnes says. Planners also looked to Fair Oaks Farms, a working farm in Indiana built as a destination learning experience, for examples of how to make the bio-secure swine barn area visible to fairgoers.

Cost for the project is expected to top $600,000, and is funded by local donors and ag-related companies which have stepped up to donate equipment.

“We couldn’t do this without financial support from donors who can see the benefit a state-of-the-art facility of this kind would bring to our county,” Barnes says. “Area farmers Dale and Laura Reicks of Reicks View Farms gave us an initial shot in the arm with a substantial donation, and many other individuals and companies have followed suit with monetary and in-kind donations of their own.”

For Reicks View Farms, the project was a perfect fit for their philosophy of giving back.

“We could see from the start that the educational potential of this project is tremendous,” says Laura Reicks. “We’re just really proud that we can give back to the community and help make it possible for everyone to experience agriculture’s positive impact. It’s great to be able to plant a seed for future generations.”

Photo Cutline: Howard County FFA and 4-H youth weigh and sort pigs in state-of-the-art swine barn in the new Ag Education Center at the Mighty Howard County Fairgrounds. The pigs are raised full-time in the barn, so exhibitors don’t need to own the pig or have a place to raise it, enabling participation by a wider range of youth. Photo courtesy of the Mighty Howard County Fair.