By STEVEN YACCINO - MAY 11, 2014 - New York Times
HAGERSTOWN, Ind. — Beyond a stack of hay bales, past the site of Indiana’s first soil-judging contest, high school students in this tiny eastern town stroll down a grassy slope to reach their newest classroom: a fenced-in field of cud-chewing cattle.
Starting in the next academic year, the cattle, which arrived last month and have names like Ground Round and Honey Bear, will be fed by students enrolled in an agricultural science class. Then, when the animals are fat enough, they will be fed back to their caretakers — as beef patties on lunchroom trays.
Hagerstown, population 1,769, is like many rural communities confronting the cost of population decline and concerns that local agricultural ties are disappearing. Small-town schools across the country are turning to hands-on agricultural classes that also supply cheaper, healthier food for their cafeterias. A high school in Montague, Mich., has student-raised chicken on its menu. Another, in Willits, Calif., serves campus-bred pork. Pupils in other districts throughout the Midwest are growing crops or garden produce for a letter grade before eating the fruits of their labor when the lunch bell rings.
William Doering, the superintendent, met one up close. Credit Maddie McGarvey for The New York Times
“As budgets keep getting cut, we keep looking to more creative ways,” said Stefonie Sebastian, education specialist at F.F.A., a national agriculture education group that was once known as Future Farmers of America and that has supported such projects. “Agriculture programs used to be on the chopping block. Now we’re seeing it as a way to get things done at the school.”
The postrecession struggle of rural towns is as common around here as rows of corn. Farming and manufacturing jobs are disappearing. Residents move away in a steady, debilitating trickle. Few return.
Sixty miles east of Indianapolis, schools in Hagerstown have lost enough students since 2010 to cause a significant drop in per-pupil funding from the state. Teachers have been laid off, and a pre-engineering program was axed. The high school pool was drained in spring and summer to save on the cost of heating and chemicals, a compromise alternative to closing it permanently.
School officials say the Hagerstown cattle program — informally known as “Where’s the Beef?” — is expected to save at least $2,000 in annual cafeteria costs and expand vocational training.
“We’ll have more meat than we’ll be able to consume,” said Mark Childs, the principal at Hagerstown Junior-Senior High School, which will sell its extra beef. “We supply our own.”
According to a United States Department of Agriculture report released this month, there was a slight uptick between 2007 and 2012 in the number of new farmers under the age of 35, but over all, the number of farmers shrank by nearly 20 percent. The total number of farms also fell, by more than 100,000, as large food producers expanded and land prices rose — putting more pressure on the small family farm.
Hagerstown has perhaps as good a chance as any place to buck the broader trend. Amish dairy farmers have arrived from Pennsylvania in recent years, with more on the way. Teachers at the high school, which has offered agricultural courses since 1934, tend crops and livestock on the side for extra income. Some students wear F.F.A. jackets as if they were sporting varsity letters; they speak with pride about the local chapter’s soil-judging team, which last year fell just shy of qualifying for nationals.