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County Schools rethink agricultural education

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By Kacie Goode

“I think we are at the point where we are being very purposeful in what we are trying to do and make an impact for our students.”

John Hammond, Land Lab instructor

In its first year as a class, the Land Lab at Thomas Nelson High School is working hard to transform the school’s campus into a hands-on farming and science experience, an effort to keep up with the growth of agriculture education in Kentucky and leave behind a legacy for future students.

“We want to allow students an opportunity to essentially have their own projects on school property, to learn about agriculture in a very hands-on way and to utilize their time effectively,” said agriculture teacher John Hammond on what Land Lab sets out to provide.

In its current state, the Land Lab has about 30 acres of row crops and, in January, acquired two goats and a donkey, which call an enclosure on the campus home.

But there are numerous other projects planned, including materials to build raised bed gardens and the donation of a hoop barn to store equipment. Among the more ambitious initiatives are adding a fruit orchard, a mobile chicken coop, a livestock corral and additional fencing, and purchasing a solar-powered FarmBot, which has the capability to plant, water, weed and monitor crops in a small area.

To help see these projects to fruition, the class is pursuing grants from sources such as the Kentucky FFA Foundation to help purchase the needed materials. FFA and Land Lab, Hammond explained, go hand in hand. FFA is one of three parts of agriculture education, he said. The other two parts are classroom instruction and supervised agricultural experiences. Land Lab would, in particular, make the latter possible for more students.

“Our vision is, if a kid lives in an apartment and they don’t have access to land or their financial situation is not quite where it needs to be, they would have the opportunity to be involved here and actually have that project here on campus they could manage and take care of,” Hammond said.

The potential reach is important, said Jacob Ball, a Nelson County native and agriculture teacher at Locust Trace AgriScience Center in Lexington, which has served as a model for what agriculture and career education could become. Hammond and students previously visited the center to see how it operates.

“To have a student that has no land or no means at their own home to raise an animal or plant a garden and to open school resources and facilities to let them take ownership of their own project, to have that buy-in, that is super beneficial,” Ball said. And the opportunity for more students to be involved in food production is one that could have a community wide agriculture and economic impact.

While Locust Trace is a separate entity, the efforts of more traditional schools such as Thomas Nelson is likely a step in the right direction in rethinking the student experience and being able to take a concept from the classroom and immediately apply it in real life.

“What they are doing at Thomas Nelson is really amazing,” Ball said. “I think it’s really an authentic learning experience,” and outside of a place like Locust Trace, “not many students get that opportunity.”

While the local program is still waiting to see if it will receive the larger FFA grants to support Land Lab, a $5,000 donation has already been committed from Farm Credit Mid-America for the purchase of a used livestock trailer, which Hammond said will be used to move animals for showing or transport to market as the program develops.

In its inaugural year, the students taking part in Land Lab are excited for what they are developing for the district’s future.

“It’s really awesome to be part of the first class, trying to do it and building this opportunity up,” said senior Ben Hite, adding he wished the program had launched earlier in his high school experience. Hite was among the students who helped with the planning process of the class last school year and over the summer, even working on some of his own crop projects on the campus. “Trying to get everything organized and watching it slowly come together, especially now, and then having the rest of the year to continue to build this, it excites me,” he said.

Fellow Land Lab student Garrett Hall is also excited.

“It has been great being able to work with the rest of the Land Lab class; to be able to set the foundation for the other people that are going to be able to advance to bigger and better things than what we’ve been able to do,” Hall said. “It’s a really great experience being able to help start that movement forward.”

Last week, Hall and Hite, along with classmates Lydia Sandefur, Nichole Smith and Jennifer Dones, took advantage of the sunshine and worked on putting together a small pen to go inside the animal enclosure, which would help to separate the animals for veterinary service or other need.

Smith took charge of feeding the goats, Bonnie and Lily, which were gifted the school by a substitute teacher.

“I actually want to be a veterinarian,” Smith said. “Working with these animals has helped me gain a lot of experience from them and how to take care of them.”

That unique exposure at school is just one example of how Land Lab could eventually enhance ag and science education in Nelson County. Land Lab is one of seven agriculture courses offered at Thomas Nelson, joined by agriscience, agribiology, food science, small animal and equine science, floriculture and agriculture leadership. But the lab project is likely to result in a campus experience that will serve all course offerings in some way, and improve the school’s access to educational pathways in Animal Science, Food Science and Wildlife Resources.

Eventually, Hammond envisions Land Lab to enroll 15 to 30 students a year and for the class to be the length of several class periods to allow time for in-depth learning.

“My vision is, I want to have both high schools involved, basically split down the middle,” Hammond said, explaining the program would also be open to Nelson County High School ag students and its FFA chapter, which have collaborated on projects at the campus previously. “All those students are going to have projects here, and they are all managing them and doing different things daily at school.”

In addition to providing experience, there is also a potential for Land Lab to support the schools’ programs by leasing out remaining land to other farmers or taking on its own small entrepreneurial projects.

While plans are taking shape, it will take a while for the program to realize its full potential and goals have been set to gain community sponsorships, partnerships and grants to help fund and support the process.

Within the next 10 years, Hammond aims to see a fully operational livestock facility in place, as well as a farm-to-school program providing produce, meat and eggs to the schools’ cafeterias.

“I think we are moving in the right direction,” he said, when sharing the ideas with the Nelson County Board of Education earlier this month. “I think we are at the point where we are being very purposeful in what we are trying to do and make an impact for our students.”