Local farmers, advocates teach students about raising animals humanely and sustainably

When suburban farmer Cliff McConville teaches kids about his farm on the Brunner Family Forest Preserve in Carpentersville, where grass-fed cows, pigs and chickens roam freely across 150 acres of pasture, he hopes he’s inspiring not only future consumers but future farmers.

“I really enjoy farming this way, because I can see how happy the animals are,” McConville said. “What we like to think is that we can just plant a little bit of a seed that this is what we do, we enjoy our work, we get to work outdoors with animals, and then maybe one kid goes off and says, ‘Hey, I want to be a farmer someday.’”

Teaching kids about humane and environmentally sustainable ways to raise farm animals can be a tricky task, especially in a world where food and culture are intertwined, but advocates say it doesn’t have to be complicated.

  All Grass Farms in Kane County has around 700 crate-free chickens to produce eggs. That number will increase to around 1,300 chickens when they operate in the larger pastures. Paul Valade/

As part of a recent initiative of nonprofit Crate Free USA, McConville will visit Elgin’s Gail Borden Public Library later this month to talk to kids about eco-friendly life on a farm. The presentation is one of several that Crate Free USA is sponsoring with the goal of building empathy and respect for farm animals — without indoctrination, the organization emphasizes.

“We do not come off as anti-meat,” Crate Free USA’s founder and President Jess Chipkin said. “It’s about eating less meat, paying attention to where you get it, trying meatless Mondays, or become vegetarian or vegan. You have a lot of different choices, but it's definitely not pushing families to go vegan and scaring kids away from eating meat.”

While Crate Free USA’s primary mission is to advocate for more humane conditions for factory farm animals, Chipkin began hosting presentations at schools and libraries about five years ago with the goal of introducing kids to the idea of where meat comes from.

  All Grass Farms operates on Kane County Forest Preserve land just south of Algonquin along Route 31. Paul Valade/

“There is a real big disconnect between what adults know about the food on their plates and how it gets there, let alone the children,” Chipkin said. “What we try to do is show kids how animals that are raised for food should be raised.”

The presentations are illustrated by a children’s book illustrator and steer clear of factory farm images. Rather, they focus on building a discussion on the lives of the animals.

Kids pet a cow during a weeklong summer camp about regenerative farming and raising chickens, cows, and pigs, hosted by All Grass Farms located within the Brunner Family Forest Preserve in Carpentersville. Courtesy of All Grass Farms

“Kids have a natural fascination and affinity with animals,” Chipkin said. “This is a great foundation for building compassion for all living beings. All of this leads to building a foundation of knowledge to help future consumers make more socially responsible choices as they grow up. Also, it’s pretty well documented that these days children have a pretty high level of influence on household purchasing decision, even if they’re not purchasing the products themselves, so it’s an opportunity for them to teach their parents, as well.”

In a room full of curious, young minds, questions after the presentations are usually free-flowing: Where do they sleep at night? How long does it take for them to grow up? What do they eat?

McConville is no stranger to answering these curiosities.

Each summer, All Grass Farms hosts a weeklong camp where kids learn about regenerative agriculture and how animals are pasture-raised on the Dundee Township farm. The “Hot Shots” camp, designed for teens 16-18 years, includes an additional camp-out at the farm’s 400-acre Wisconsin location.

  All Grass Farms in Kane County sells its own crate-free meat products in its store. Paul Valade/

All Grass Farms also takes on apprentices and interns throughout the year.

“We’ve got to raise not only more educated consumers, but future farmers. I hope that we can get some of these kids interested in farming as a career — our kind of farming,” McConville said.

Regenerative agriculture, heralded by environmentalists as a major solution to climate change and water issues, is a conservation alternative to conventional farming that focuses on rebuilding soil health and biodiversity. One of the practice’s central techniques is managed grazing, in which livestock move between pastures on a regular basis.

By having cows, pigs and chickens graze much the way buffalo herds have naturally for thousands of years, soil fertility improves, pasture grasses have time to regrow, and food is created for all the important organisms that live in the soil.

It also makes for healthier, happier farm animals, McConville said.

  Five-month-old dairy cows live in a crate-free environment at All Grass Farms in Kane County. Paul Valade/

That’s compared to the crowded and mechanized factory farms from where most supermarket meat, egg and dairy products come. While animals at these industrial facilities typically have little to no time outdoors and eat corn and soybeans, the animals at McConville’s farm spend the majority of their lives outside eating grass, organic grain mix and natural supplements such as alfalfa, insects and roots.

It’s this range of humanitarian and environmental impacts that inspired sixth-grade science teacher Sandie Brady to reach out to Crate Free USA for a presentation last summer.

In looking to fulfill a science standard that explores how humans impact the environment, Brady asked the organization to create a virtual presentation about the effects of factory farming.

Once the students watch the video, which serves as an example of how a local group is affecting change, they’re asked to embark on an action item of their own. Topics can include using less plastic and reducing personal carbon emissions.

  Cliff McConville unloads hay for dairy cows at his crate-free All Grass Farms in Kane County. Paul Valade/

“It’s going to be their future, so I think they should know about it,” Brady said. “Sometimes middle schoolers or kids in general feel like they can't contribute to society in any way. I wanted them to know you can. There's little things that you can do and there’s things you can teach your families to do.”

• Jenny Whidden is a climate change and environment writer working with the Daily Herald through a partnership with Report For America supported by The Nature Conservancy. To help support her work with a tax-deductible donation, see

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