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Own grown

McMinn school system offers farm-to-school events with students as consumers and producers
Story by: Sarah Geyer 4/25/2019


As part of their large animal and veterinarian science classes, students at McMinn Central High School, like Patrick Williams, pictured above, breed and raise hogs and finish cattle on their school’s 10-acre farm. The meat from those animals provides delicious entrées for students system-wide during special events through the school year.
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McMinn County Schools has a unique farm-to-school program.

Their students aren’t just the consumers of farm-fresh pork and beef; they’re also the producers. Ag students at McMinn Central High School raise hogs and cattle on the school’s 10-acre farm, then in turn, the meat from those animals provides delicious meals for students and staff at special events through the school year.

It’s been two years since the idea for this farm-to-school project was hatched during a chance meeting in the hallway.

But the foundation for the project — students raising livestock— was laid several years earlier, the product of ag teacher Annette Bryant’s dedication to her students and her craft.

Soon after she joined Central’s faculty, the animal and veterinarian science teacher and FFA advisor realized the majority of her students had little experience with farming. So she began to enhance the course’s textbook material using the school’s farm to provide meaningful, hands-on learning experiences.

When a mother of one of her FFA students asked Bryant if she felt comfortable artificially inseminating (AI) two of her sows, the ag teacher agreed to provide the service. Bryant had learned the skill while attending the University of Tennessee at Martin. She AI’d the sows at Central’s farm during school hours and transformed the task into an educational workshop for her classes. When the mother donated and offspring of one of those sows to Central’s ag program, Bryant realized she had the beginnings of a valuable educational experience.

“With hogs, you can have a finished project in six months,” she explains. “That means students can experience the entire production cycle.”

She revamped the structure of her large animal and veterinarian classes to include the general care and maintenance of the farm’s sows. As a part of these courses, students are active participants in all phases of breeding including synchronization, AI, and administration of heat tests before and after AI.

After the sows are bred, students have a front row seat when local veterinarian Dr. Misty Kirksey confirms the pregnancies during her on-the-farm examinations. By the time the piglets arrive, students are prepared to take the lead providing appropriate nutrition, water, and animal health needs for the animals to reach market weight.

For the first three years, the students sold the best hogs as show animals to FFA members, designated a sow or two to keep for breeding, and processed the rest into sausage, selling it by the pound from the classroom.

The need for those small sales ended two years ago, when an impromptu hallway conversation between Bryant and Sarah Prince, McMinn County School’s nutrition supervisor, created a large-volume customer.

Prince recognized an ideal opportunity to incorporate the farm-to-school food and ag education program. Together, the two developed a plan that showcased the food, the student-producers, and FFA. They decided to supply sausage biscuits at breakfast, prepared and served by Bryant’s students and FFA members to their 500 fellow Central High classmates during FFA Week.

A few weeks before the event, the ag students spent time with Central’s Cafeteria Manager, Maxine Roberts, who trained them in the proper handling and cooking of raw meat, measuring fat in cooked products, and assembling and serving a breakfast that meets governmental nutritional requirements.

“It was neat to see students gain an understanding of what it takes to provide breakfast and lunch for their school each day,” says Bryant. “It’s definitely given all of us a new appreciation for the cafeteria staff.”

The sausage biscuits were so popular that the week-long supply only lasted through Wednesday.

“It was a big hit,” says Prince. “The kids just couldn’t say enough about the flavor of the sausage.”

The success of the first event sparked the McMinn Farm-to-School Committee to encourage Prince and Bryant to continue, offering two suggestions:

First, expand the FFA breakfast into all nine of the system’s schools, encompassing more than 5,000 students.

Second, plan an additional system-wide farm-to-school event for all nine schools, featuring a different type of protein raised by Bryant’s students.

Prince suggested roasted or slow-cooked beef would be the perfect entrée for the school system’s annual Christmas lunch.

Considering the gestation time for cattle, Bryant’s students would not have time to breed and raise market weight beef by December. However, the students could raise calves to market weight by then. Bryant purchased three calves with seed money from Athens Stockyard, McMinn County Livestock Association, and Farm Credit Mid-America. After months of care and feeding from Bryant’s students, the cattle provided 3,600 pounds of beef for the special holiday meal.

During FFA Week just a few months later, 10 hogs, born and raised on Central’s farm, provided more than 1,200 pounds of sausage, two to three days of breakfast at all nine schools.

To ensure healthy and hefty livestock for these events, Bryant and her students depend exclusively on Co-op feed for each stage of growth – including starter, grower, finisher, and sow ration for the hogs and beef grower and finisher for the cattle. The feed, along with other livestock and farm supplies, are purchased at AgCentral Farmers Cooperative’s Athens store. Bryant adds that AgCentral’s veterinarian Dr. Dan Cummings has been a valuable resource for her.

Although the meals naturally took center stage at these events, Bryant made sure students had many opportunities to learn about food production.

For the special Christmas lunch event, the ag educator transformed each of the nine school cafeterias into an interactive beef learning center. Information was presented in several formats, including large posters featuring local beef producers and their families working on their farms. But Bryant didn’t stop there. She made sure each school had at least one producer attend.

“So many of the producers told me how much they enjoyed the event and the opportunity to help educate the students by sharing their farming story,” she says.

She also assigned to each school several FFA and 4-H members to distribute age appropriate educational materials and answer any questions. Before the event, Bryant prepared her students with a three-hour informational session.

The ag teacher incorporated many of the same education tools about pork during FFA Week’s sausage biscuit breakfast. With just a few hog farms in McMinn County, lining up a pork producer for each of the nine schools was a challenge. But teams of FFA students happily filled in, says Bryant, and eagerly shared their experiences as hog farmers with the students.

“I was surprised with the number of students who knew very little about where their food comes from,” says senior Abby Reid. “It made me realize how important this program is.”

There were some “aha!” moments during the event, adds senior Madison Webb.

“It was like seeing a light bulb turn on for the kids,” she explains, “when they made the connection between the sausage on their plate and the hogs we raised on the school’s farm.”

Bryant says she’s proud of the enthusiasm and work ethic her students displayed as participants of these farm-to-school collaborations and has been inspired to expand the farm’s full-cycle food production beyond hogs. In addition to finishing purchased calves, her students will learn how to build their own cattle herd and participate in all cycles of beef production, from breeding to finishing.

As for Prince, she’s planning a third farm-to-school event for next year, a back-to-school barbecue featuring pork roast from hogs raised by Bryant’s students. The nutrition supervisor says the scale of this event will likely be much smaller than the others, perhaps providing meals for just one or two schools.

“I don’t think people understand the complexity of these farm-to-school meals,” says Norma Barham, director of coordinated school health for McMinn County Schools. “To be reimbursed for a meal through the USDA school lunch program, there are so many requirements as far as procurement and actual weight of served food for it to be credited. When you consider adding the educational component, this has been a tremendous amount of work for both Mrs. Prince and Mrs. Bryant. They went above and beyond for this program.”

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