Payson's rural roots are eroding -- to the point where some elementary school students didn't recognize a turkey when they had the opportunity to meet one in person.
The students were kindergarten, first- and second-graders at Payson Elementary School, and the opportunity was the Visiting Barnyard program staged each year by the agriculture education students at Payson High School.
"Every year we bring over animals so that the elementary school students can play with them and see where their food comes from and stuff like that," PHS senior Sarah Chasse said.
"Most of the kids didn't even know what we had there -- the turkeys, the goats, the ferrets."
Besides the unrecognizable animals, the ag students also brought along puppies, a kitten, an angora rabbit, ducks, a guinea pig and horses -- lots of horses.
"We just converge on PES with all of the animals we can gather and show kids the animals that we have," PHS agriculture teacher Wendell Stevens said. "It's an amazing experience, and it's surprising that more and more of the children who come are seeing some of the animals for the first time."
The Visiting Barnyard program has been going on for years, and there was a time when all Payson children had a chance to attend.
"When we originally started, we used to use the rodeo grounds when they were right here in the center of town," Stevens said. "But when we moved out to the multi-event center, there was some concern whether we could do it out there or not so we got in the habit of just taking it over to PES. In the old days, all the kids came."
Stevens has seen a lot of changes since he was an ag student himself.
"When I was in ag and growing up on a farm -- back when wheels were square -- we still had a lot of kids that came from production areas, farming, ranching that sort of thing," Stevens said. "But today, their career opportunities lie in a lot of the agriculture-related occupations such as research and sales and horticulture and biotechnology and those types of things. When I first started teaching ag, we did a lot of gymkhanas and ropings and things like the Visiting Barnyard. We certainly support those areas still, but we have to recognize that most of our kids have other interests."
Stevens believes that agriculture education is still a great place to instill fundamental values that will serve his students well no matter what career paths they pursue.
"Every morning the students get a quote that's off a Character Counts CD and they respond to it -- they either agree or disagree with it," he said. "The quotes are tied to the six pillars of character."
Character Counts is a statewide program that the Payson Unified School District adopted two years ago. The six pillars of character that the program is built upon are trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring and citizenship, and the goal is to immerse them into every aspect of the school program, including both curricular and non-curricular activities.
"Caring for animals certainly brings in some of the pillars," Stevens said.
"We're also affiliated with 4H, and 4H was one of the first organizations to adopt Character Counts, long before many schools adopted it."
What Stevens needs most to keep his program viable is more volunteer assistance from parents and other adults in the community.
"We're trying to drum up some support for some of the projects we'd like to do in the future just around the ag room," he said.
"We need people who have some experience in landscaping, in doing hardscapes, in pond building, and anybody who would like to help us put together a small facility for llamas."
Some students in the animal science portion of the ag program adopted two llamas donated by local llama rancher Richard Falkenberg. They are hoping to eventually house them on campus.
"The llamas are ready to come, but sometimes I get super busy and need a little help from an adult standpoint to keep the kids directed," Stevens said. "I also have a responsibility to teach certain competencies and units so sometimes it's easier to bring an adult in who can take two or three kids out to work on a project while I have the rest of the class in a classroom situation.
"We're always looking for help, and (our volunteers) have a big impact on young people's lives. We have a better program for it."
Watching the PES students ride around the playground on horses that Stevens' students brought to the Visiting Barnyard event, it's easy to see how a synergy develops when people donate their time and resources to help others.
"It's nice to let the kids know (about animals), because a lot of them don't know," Chasse said.
"It's good for students of both ages," Stevens added.
He can be reached at 472-5734.