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Getting their hands dirty

Eagle Point High School junior Fiona Nevins gets local fourth-graders whooping and hollering as she jumps up and down in a tall canvas chute that will ultimately hold about 200 pounds of freshly shorn wool.

"It's like grape stomping," Nevins says.

Nevins, 16, was one of many volunteers helping more than 900 students learn about sheep-shearing, horseshoeing, beekeeping and more during Hands-on-Ag-Days, held Thursday and Friday at The Expo in Central Point.

"We're just giving Lucy a haircut," Nevins says, explaining how approximately 6 pounds of wool had just been shorn from the ewe.

Stroking her hands across Lucy's naturally oily torso, Nevins explains the medicinal, waterproofing and bug-repelling properties of lanolin, which is found in wool. Then she asks the students if they want to take a whiff.

"Wanna smell my hands?" Nevins asks with a grin. "They smell terrible."

Nevins and the rest of the presenters offer their information in repeated 10-minute intervals as the students move from station to station getting "hands-on" experience with horses, emus, honeybees, wildlife management and more, says Sharon Bateman, event coordinator.

Hands-on-Ag-Days is in its 21st year. Funded by a grant from the Oregon Beef Council and local donations, the event promotes participation in 4-H clubs, FFA chapters and students in the National Junior Honor Society. It also helps an increasingly urban student body stay connected with its roots, she says.

"Every year it gets bigger," Bateman says. "It's important for kids to know where milk comes from. It doesn't come from a container in a store. It comes from a cow in a field."

Or from a goat.

Dylan Hall, a fourth-grader at Lone Pine Elementary School, gingerly coaxes a quick stream of creamy goat milk into a silver bucket as his fellow students wait in line for their turn.

"The udder feels so weird," Hall says to his friends.

The next station is all about swine production. Cupcake, a pregnant Yorkshire-cross sow, looks unconcerned as students learn where a butcher would slice her into bacon, pork chops and ham.

Guy Appleton, of the Southern Oregon Beekeepers Association, says the No. 2 question students have been asking is, "What would happen if the glass-encased observation hive he's brought to The Expo were to break open?"

Answer? Ten-thousand bees would make a break for it.

"The No. 1 question is, 'Where is the queen?' " Appleton says.

"We saw her earlier today."

Don Elms and Wes Harden give the students lessons in horseshoeing. Top questions at their station are: "Is it a boy or a girl?" "What is his color?" and "Have you ever been kicked?"

While Harden works on the quiet, 1,000-pound, gray gelding, Elms explains it would take two farriers to make shoes for a 2,000-pound draft horse.

"It takes one guy to hold the tongs and one guy to beat on the metal," he says.

Greg Robinson of High Cascade Emus is sporting his best Crocodile Dundee garb and faux-Aussie accent as he leads his groups through a rousing primer on big, dangerous birds.

Robinson's emus top out at 6 feet tall and 140 pounds, well behind an ostrich. But when it comes to the most dangerous of the large flightless birds, cassowaries are at the top of Robinson's list. Native to tropical forests of New Guinea and northeastern Australia, these "dinosaur" birds are dangerous when provoked, he says.

"Crikey!" Robinson shouts, describing the fatal blows possible from the big bird's talons.

Students learn about byproducts of animals, as well. Sitting on leather saddles, the 10-year-olds listen to volunteers and learn how cows become more than steak.

Dan Etheridge of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife uses antlers, hooves and animal skins to explain native wildlife to the groups.

Holding up a skunk skin, Etheridge offers up his father's nickname for the black-and-white omnivores.

"He used to call them a souped-up kitty with a fluid drive," Etheridge says.

The Pacific fisher is becoming threatened and endangered, Etheridge explains. A shy member of the weasel family, fishers are native to Mount Ashland and the Applegate Valley, he says. The department will be capturing and collaring several fishers to better protect them, Etheridge adds.

"The more we learn, the better chance we have to keep them from becoming extinct," Etheridge says.

Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 541-776-4497 or sspecht@mailtribune.com.

Hoover Elementary fourth-grader Jaxon Sims, right, jokes around with his classmates at the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife station during “Hands-on-Ag-Days,” held Thursday and Friday at The Expo. - Bob Pennell