Milk comes from a cow, not a carton. But teachers in Baltimore City say some students don't know about the part before the grocer's shelf.
In an effort to remedy this, a "Dairy Discovery Days" program plans to introduce some 200 inner-city middle school students to the University of Maryland's dairy research farm outside Clarksville for a day next fall.
There, sixth- and seventh-graders will milk a cow. They'll see milking machines and learn how a cow's digestive system turns grain into milk. They'll see where milk is stored and learn why and how milk is pasteurized and homogenized.
They'll make ice cream, butter and cottage cheese. Then they'll eat.
Besides learning where milk comes from, the program is designed to let city children know about career opportunities they might otherwise never consider. Though many students will not choose to specialize in a farm science after a visit to the Maryland countryside, they will learn about the region, the environment, the national economy and the food chain.
To prepare for the October field trip, science teachers at Canton Middle School in Southeast Baltimore and Fallstaff Middle School in Northwest Baltimore will introduce agriculture into their classrooms before they head for the fields of Central Maryland.
Because the program is so new, only two schools are scheduled to participate this fall. More will be added when the organizers know more specifically how the program will work. Ultimately, more than 600 city students are expected to get to the dairy farm each year.
Middle schools are being targeted so that interested sixth- or seventh-graders can sign up for the biology or chemistry classes they'll need if they want to go into agronomy, entomology, botany or zoology. Specialists in the fields work at the Clarksville facility, so students will be able to see them at work.
The project is being spearheaded by the University of Maryland's Cooperative Extension Service and the service's 4-H agents in Baltimore City, the Maryland Education Center for Agriculture, Science and Technology in Baltimore, and Howard County's dairy research farm. The farm, formally known as Central Maryland Research and Education Center, is funded by the University of Maryland.
"Dairy Discovery Days" is modeled on "Kids Growing with Grain," a project run out of the Western Maryland Research and Education Center in Frederick County. Since 1992, fourth-graders from Frederick and Hagerstown have visited the grain research farm for a day each October. The focus there is on grain and how it is used by humans and animals.
"We show the kids how much grain is needed each day to get an animal to market size. Then we have them make granola, popcorn balls and pretzels so they actually taste and have hands-on experiences with grain," said Maxine Casey,a nutrition specialist who works for the University of Maryland and was one originator of "Kids Growing with Grain."
The program won a national award for innovation and for its focus on food quality and food safety. That got the attention of Baltimore City's educators. Since February, 4-H agents have been talking with school officials, teachers and dairy farm manager Robert Bassler to get the new project off the ground by this fall.
Mr. Bassler said the University of Maryland is interested in making its research more accessible to the public, and "Dairy Discovery Days" is only one of the outreach programs the farm has taken on in the last few years.
In April 1994, the farm had its first "Conservation and Discovery Day" to help people learn more about soil conservation, Mr. Bassler said. Those interested in gardening came, as did farmers and people with horses.
This year, the event was held at the Howard County fairgrounds, and "there was double the crowd," said Mr. Bassler.
The farm also sponsored its first "Envirothon" this year, in which Howard County students answered questions on the environment and area wildlife.
Before last year, the farm sponsored a field day a year, for farmers only. Now tours can also be scheduled by groups who are not in farming.
The facility was established by the University of Maryland in 1957 to research dairy farming for the benefit of Maryland farmers. Dairy farmers visit the farm, usually once a year, said Mr. Bassler, to learn the latest trends and techniques in farming.
At the Clarksville farm, research focuses on how to raise healthier, more productive cows. Today, a cow at the research farm typically produces 20,000 pounds of milk a year, or about 2,380 gallons, said Mr. Bassler. Twenty-five years ago, an average cow there produced about 13,000 pounds, or 1,550 gallons, a year.
Though milk production also has also increased at commercial dairy farms, a cow there would make about 14,500 pounds, or 1,700 gallons of milk today.
The Maryland Education Center for Agriculture, Science and Technology is involved because the people are interested in teaching children about farming and teaching them "that food doesn't start in the grocery store and waste doesn't stop at the trash cans," said Robert Keenan, who raises money for the program.
The money he raises will pay for training middle school science teachers and for any teaching tools they may need, such as videos and textbooks.
For this fall's visit, costs are not expected to exceed $600, and will largely be for transportation.