Hands-on learning at farm school in Essex

Nick Johansen
The Red Oak Express

The Essex Community School District’s farm school has expanded to include farm animals for students to take care of and interact with.
Essex Ag instructor Rebekah Sampers said the concept of a farm school was the brainchild of Essex and Hamburg superintendent Dr. Mike Wells, who also established a program in Hamburg.
“Dr. Wells had seen the success of the farm school in Hamburg, and he knew that it would be a good program to start here, because a lot of the kids in the district don’t have any farm experience, and it would be a good opportunity and another program that looked good for Essex,” Sampers explained.
Farm school differs from a normal FFA program, Sampers said, because in FFA students don’t have the opportunities to have hands-on experience with farm animals during school hours.
“A lot of FFA activities take place outside of school, on your own time, and with your own farm animals. With this program, the students can have the opportunities during school hours, and take what they’ve learned in the classroom and apply it to the animals we have outside,” said Sampers.
The program is available to all students in kindergarten through 12th grade, and she sees each class once per week. Sampers said the idea for the program has always included bringing in live animals, and they wanted to bring in animals that would be easy for kids to enjoy.
“Chickens are a very kid-friendly animal, compared to say a horse or a cow. We have four hens outside, and they are laying eggs, so it’s a fun experience for the kids to be able to collect the eggs. We also have goats outside, but we can’t do as much with them as we can with the hens,” commented Sampers. “Last year, we incubated chicken eggs and hatched them, and the kids loved that. Doing that last year, I feel, helped cement the idea to bring out chickens and goats for the farm school this year.”
Getting the chickens, Sampers said, was a bit difficult due to supply chain issues that continue to plague the state. The chickens at the school were donated to the program.
“We built the coop, and then we wanted to order and incubate chicken eggs to put into the coop, but with the supply issues, that plan didn’t come to pass. We thankfully had a staff member, Chris Barber, who generously donated the chickens that we have outside. We were very fortunate that she did that,” Sampers said.
Sampers added that they are looking to expand and add more chickens to the farm school coop later on.
“Dr. Wells has ordered chicken eggs for us to incubate at a later time. When those come in, the elementary will have the opportunity to incubate the eggs, and some of those chickens will be put in our coop outside, and the other chickens will go to the Hamburg farm school,” stated Sampers.
The initial plan was to start the program with the chickens, but due to the delay, they got three goats for the program at the beginning of the school year.
“One of the goats currently belongs to an Essex resident, and she brought that in to start the program while we waited for the other two goats the school purchased. We probably won’t add too many more goats, as the shelter that we have for them is a good size for three goats,” explained Sampers. “Once the first goat returns to her original home, and we’re down to two goats, I think the plan is to breed the two remaining goats to have babies, which would be a cool thing for the kids to experience. They are a smaller breed of goat as well, so adding a couple more and bringing our total to four would be manageable. I would say that we would have no more than four goats in total in the program.”

Also, Sampers said they anticipate adding some more manageable animals to the farm school program in the future.

“We’ve talked about getting some sheep, and some ducks, and we want to keep the program to the smaller species, since the big animals, like cows and horses could be dangerous to the kids, and are much more expensive to maintain. We have an extra pen currently getting ready for either sheep or ducks,” advised Sampers.

One of Sampers’ ag classes constructed the goat house last year. A maker space group constructed the sheep house the year before, and the chicken coop was also built two years ago. Fencing was made by Dr. Mike Wells.

A majority of the care of the animals is provided by the students in the farm school classes.

“My morning classes are responsible for doing the morning chores, and later in the day, when I have the elementary classes, they also get the opportunity to do some chores.  They also get the chance to collect fresh eggs, or replace the water for the animals when we have a hot day.

Since the majority of the students in the class don’t live on a farm, being able to care for chickens and goats has been wonderful for the kids to experience.

“Every time I take those kids out, their faces light up, and I can tell it’s been one of the highlights of their day. Being able to have the opportunity to interact with the animals and take on those responsibilities they don’t have the chance to have at home,” Sampers said.

On a personal level, Sampers said it’s a good feeling to be able to lead the farm school program, as it’s somewhat unique to the area.

“Essex has never had a farm school before, so it’s definitely a very cool feeling knowing I’m part of one of the Essex District’s first programs.”

The Red Oak Express

2012 Commerce Drive
P.O. Box 377
Red Oak, IA 51566
Phone: 712-623-2566 Fax: 712-623-2568

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