Agriculture program students learn about more than plants, animals and food

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Farm Forum

Lettuce, fish and a cow are teaching life lessons at New Richmond High School.

Students grow leafy greens in fish-fed aquaponics systems, raise a steer and farm hundreds of tilapia in huge tanks while learning about careers in agriculture and the origins of the food they consume.

It’s all part of the school’s agriscience program led by instructor Rachel Sauvola, who in November was given the Agriscience Teacher of the Year Award by the National Association of Agricultural Educators.

And while students develop a green thumb in the school’s greenhouse and learn just how many people it takes to make everything that goes into a slice of pizza, their education extends beyond plants, animals and food.

“Every time we run into a problem, it’s all about communication,” Sauvola said. “So, many life skills are built into what we do here.”

Her students also put the knowledge they’ve gained in other classes, such as mathematics, into practice.

To grow tilapia, for instance, students regularly must weigh the fish and use that figure to determine how much feed to put into their tanks.

The school has more than 600 tilapia in two 800-gallon tanks. In December, about 350 of the fish were harvested and sold to Westfields Hospital & Clinic in New Richmond, Minn.

With more fish presumably available for harvest in May, the school hopes to get some of the tilapia into school lunches, Sauvola said.

The students also are growing spinach and lettuce in soilless aquaponic systems that include living goldfish as a way to get nutrients into plants.

They even have a steer, born last summer, that weighs about 500 pounds. It’s the program’s third steer, and it, too, is destined for the lunch plate. Students will eat the meat to compare it with store-bought beef.

They tend to prefer the home-grown meat, said Sauvola, adding that she wants her students to learn to be good consumers.

“I want them to know what they’re putting in their bodies,” she said.

Sauvola, who has plant and animal allergies that force her to take a less hands-on approach than her students, is in her 16th year teaching in the district. Before the district completed its new high school building in 2010, she taught agriscience in a “little dungeon-y room with a couple little windows and a small greenhouse,” she said.

But in the construction of the new building, she was able to submit a wish list of things she wanted for the program — and she got it, she said. Sauvola hopes to add a barn just outside the school building.

Recently, students in her Plants, Animals and Pizza class did indoor landscaping projects that combined old items such as a birdcage, fountain and popcorn pot with plants grown in the greenhouse or donated.

“We get contributions from the community,” Sauvola said. “This seems to be the place to donate your funeral plants.”

After the bell rang, her Advanced Fish and Wildlife students came in to work with the fish, which also include a tank of bluegills.

Aquaponics manager Austin Headlee, who helps lead that part of the program, says he loves the work. The 17-year-old is a senior at Somerset High School but comes to New Richmond for two hours every school day for independent-study credit.

“I definitely want to go into natural resources, and we don’t have an ag department at Somerset,” said Headlee, who plans to study soil and land management at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.

New Richmond High School senior Ellis Frank also helps with the program, but he focuses on Diesel the steer, which he brought to the school as a calf.

Sauvola said that because New Richmond is somewhat rural, people might think a lot of students plan to go into farming, but, she said, those students are few and far between. Some of them, she said, never had even touched a large farm animal.

Frank, who lives on a farm and plans to go into farming, looks at his city-slicker peers with amusement.

“I think it’s funny when they come in and go, ‘Whoa, it’s a calf!’ ” he said. “I see them every day.”