BUNKER HILL, Ind. — Meet Carson, Jeff, Calvin, Francis and Double Stuffed. They all call Maconaquah Middle School home, but they’re not students or teachers.
They’re cows. And they’re helping form the next generation of farmers in Miami County.
For the last year, three of the cattle have lived on a 2-acre pasture located right in the middle of the main campus of the Maconaquah School Corp. The other two live in a field near the schools.
Every day, including weekends and holiday breaks, rain or shine, students head out to feed the cows, give them medicine and do all the other chores required to keep the cattle healthy and safe.
And soon, two of the cows will be turned into about 2,200 pounds of beef that will be served up inside the schools’ cafeterias.
It’s all part of a new project called School to Table — a kind of academic spin on the farm-to-table movement, which promotes eating food grown by local farmers.
But in this program, the kids are the farmers and the school is the farm.
“Yeah, at school, you’re going to be cleaning out cattle pens,” said agriculture teacher John Sinnamon.
Sinnamon is teaching the 29 seventh- and eighth-graders who this year enrolled in the new program. He said part of the class is made up of worksheets and PowerPoints covering topics such as animal nutrition and agricultural trends. But the majority of the work takes place outside in the fields.
Although the program is now offered as part of the middle school’s agriculture classes, the idea actually started inside the lunch room, Sinnamon said. Three years ago, the food supervisor for the district approached administrators about the quality of the beef they were serving at the cafeteria.
“The meat comes in these bags filled with gray matter,” he said. “It’s not something you would buy for your family to serve at home. She wanted the best food for these kids. So the idea came from, ‘What can we do?’ ”
That’s a question administrators put to the students. Soon, kids in one of the business classes started working on a plan to start producing their own meat. Other students headed out to businesses and community groups to secure funding for the project.
“They’re up there in front of these CEOs and they’re not intimidated,” Sinnamon said. “These CEOs and board of directors were so impressed.”
Local contractors ended up donating time and labor to build a barn at the school. Area farmers jumped on board and donated the cattle.
“The businesses were happy to help out, because they’re in the agriculture community and they see this class as the future of their industry,” Sinnamon said.
Then, last school year, the students set to work installing a fence around the pasture. The school actually held a couple of work days in which the entire seventh- and eighth-grade student body went out to help set the posts.
With a barn and fence in place, the cattle moved into their new home on the grounds of the school.
Freshman Karli Miller, who helped get the project up and running three years ago and still works with the cattle, said seeing the cows arrive last school year made all the work and preparation worth it.
“That was a giant step for us,” she said. “We’d been working on the business plan and everything, but once we actually got the cattle here at the school, that was really exciting. It showed everybody that we could really do this.”
Now, students are learning real-world, hands-on skills on how to raise cows, Sinnamon said.
“What do we do if the cattle get out? Well, we get them back in,” he said. “What if they get sick? You take care of them. The kids have been learning and loving it. There are times when it’s frustrating, but you persevere because of all the excitement you see in the kids.”
Two of the cows soon will be butchered for meat. The school will purchase the beef from the program, which will use the money to expand the project. One of the cows is a heifer, which is due to have a calf in June. That calf will stay at the school and be raised by students.
Sinnamon said the end goal is to have a completely self-contained, self-sufficient farm, where cows can be born, raised and butchered, so the program can continue on indefinitely.
But the project isn’t focused on just cattle.
Students also built raised garden beds where they grow tomatoes, which have already gone to the cafeteria to be used in school lunches. Another teacher installed a beehive and the kids are learning how to harvest the honey. Sinnamon said they are also developing plans to build a greenhouse to grow even more produce.
He said in the end, the whole project is about giving kids real experiences with real problems to help prepare them for the future. That’s why the program is part of the district’s STEM program — a certification earned by the state that focuses on science, technology, engineering and math.
“This is so beyond what a typical school does, especially for a middle school,” Sinnamon said. “Seriously, think about school projects. How much time is typically spent on a project in school? A week or two? This has been going on for three years.”
But for freshman Miller, the class isn’t just preparing her for her future career in agriculture. It’s making school fun.
“I never really imagined that I’d have a class where I actually get to do what I love,” she said. “This is my passion. Getting to do this has been a really great experience.”