FFA members get hands-on, building fence for school farm

Bekaert
Farm Forum

Syringe in hand, FFA member Jacklyn Duzan, carefully draws 5 ccs of vaccine from a small glass vile. While her classmate, Andrew Unthank holds the 6-week-old calf steady, she tents its neck skin and gives the calf her first vaccination. Then, Duzan, 16, disposes of the needle, and hands the syringe off. Unthank, 17, returns the calf to her mother. There are five more calves to vaccinate, but it’s their classmates’ turn to apply what they learned in class.

“Kids learn better when there are hands-on opportunities,” explains Frank Gifford, agriculture education teacher and Robertson County, Kentucky, FFA advisor. And today, thanks to the on-campus farm, desk time is minimal in Gifford’s classes.

This wasn’t always the case. Gifford, a sixth-generation Robertson County cattle producer, had to wait six years after returning home to farm and teach before his vision of a school farm became a reality.

Tobacco settlement dollars funded the original barn in 2011. The rest was funded through donations from individuals and businesses, like a Robertson County landowner who donated $32,500 to build an addition on to the existing Ag Barn or local feed and farm supply stores, Hinton Mills and Central Farm Supply, who teamed up with Arkansas fencing manufacturer, Bekaert and donated 2,600-feet of high-tensile, Bezinal coated Solidlock Pro 30 Fixed Knot fencing.

“It is so exciting and gratifying to know that businesses and members of the community understand the importance of agriculture education and to know that they realize the future of agriculture rests in the hands of our youth,” Gifford says.

Before the fence went in, the farm was home to a greenhouse, bees, swine, poultry, goats and sheep. The fence allowed Gifford to expand into beef cattle. “We were interested in getting cattle because cattle are what is predominately raised in Robertson County. This is rolling hills country, so there isn’t much of an opportunity for row crops,” says Gifford of Kentucky’s least populated county, where agriculture is the number one industry.

“Our fence really progressed the ag program,” adds college freshman, Cody Hughes, 18. “Now we can learn about every aspect of cattle production, from breeding and pregnancy checking, to gestation, birth and calf care.”

The 2018-2019 FFA chapter president, Hughes was among a group of students who spent spring break 2016 building the fence. Under the direction of Bekaert Fence Pro and Technical Support Manager Steven Sarson, Hughes and his peers were able to apply every fence building technique as Sarson taught it — from brace construction to stretching the wire tight and tying it off.

“I’d never worked with woven wire before. On our family farm, we use high-tensile electric fence, so this fencing workshop taught me something new, something I can put to use one day on our family farm,” explains Hughes, a fourth-generation cattle producer, who grew up on his family’s small farm, right next door to his grandparents.

Leading fencing workshops for teens and adults for nearly 30 years, Sarson echoes Gifford’s thoughts on hands-on learning. “Fencing is a skill you can only learn by doing,” he explains.

Hughes would agree. “When something is hands-on, it pulls me in and keeps me focused,” he adds that hands-on learning is what sets agriculture classes and the FFA apart from other school-based classes and organizations.

FFA is the co-curricular leadership organization all agriculture education students have a choice to join. Hughes and most of his classmates belong. Of the 85 students who take agriculture education classes, 65 are FFA members. “Hands-on learning is even part of the FFA motto,” Hughes says, quoting, “Learning to Do, Doing to Learn, Earning to Live, Living to Serve.”

For Hughes, joining FFA was a no-brainer. “I’m tall, but I’m not aggressive enough to play basketball, so I got involved in FFA,” explains the 6-foot-5-inch college freshman. Plus, his dad, Jason Hughes, also served as Robertson County FFA chapter president. Hughes says FFA taught him a lot about teamwork, time management and public speaking — all skills he utilizes in his first year at Morehead State University where he is pursuing a degree in social studies education.

“Without me being in FFA and having the leadership responsibilities that I had, I would be struggling in college,” says Hughes, who uses the words, “culture shock” to describe how he felt moving from his small, rural community and K-12 school of 400 to the university setting of more than 6,000. Turns out, he’s doing great, getting good grades and has hopes of returning to his family’s farm and teaching at his high school.

“It doesn’t matter what occupation kids go in to, whether farmer or engineer, the life skills they gain from FFA help them journey through life successfully,” Gifford says.

Supporting the youth of the future and agriculture is the reason Bekaert serves as a National FFA Sponsor. It’s the reason Sarson and his colleagues enjoy leading hands-on fencing workshops. “Every time I see a blue corduroy FFA jacket, it gives me hope for the future,” Sarson says. “These youth give me hope for the future of agriculture and the future of this country.”

Morehead State University freshman Cody Hughes is among the Robertson County FFA members who built the fence for Robertson County School farm. Under the direction of Bekaert Fence Pro and Technical Support Manager Steven Sarson, Hughes and his peers were able to apply every fence building technique as Sarson taught it — from brace construction to stretching the wire tight and tying it off.