MERRILL, Ore. — Students at Lost River Junior-Senior High School know where their food comes from: They eat beef from their own steers, eggs from their chickens and tomatoes from their greenhouse.
In October, school cooks started using beef from two of four steers Lost River FFA students purchased and raised in hamburgers, tacos, spaghetti sauce and other meals. They’ve been cooking with eggs from the school’s 70 chickens since last year, and in late spring use tomatoes and other produce grown by students.
The students notice.
“The hamburgers are bigger and better tasting,” says sophomore Rorie Cerri, “and they’re probably healthier and a lot less processed. And having our own eggs is pretty cool. It’s never as good if it’s not farm fresh.”
The two steers provided the school enough beef to last through the winter. The other two steers are almost at a finished weight; the beef they provide will be used through the rest of the school year. The school also has a pig — which loves to eat pears from the tree that grows on campus — and more than a dozen sheep, several which are due to give birth in early February.
The process of raising and harvesting food for a school cafeteria is stringent and must meet standards of the National School Lunch Program, but Jamie Ongman, principal at Lost River Junior-Senior High School, says it’s worth it.
More students are eating breakfast and lunch — the school’s cafeteria is serving on average 20 to 30 more meals a day since October when it began serving the school-grown beef.
“Our kids get nourishment for the rest of the day, and they get to see the end product of what they raised and how we use that,” Ongman said. “Cost aside, the benefits of kids eating a quality meal that meets the national school lunch standards and being proud of what they’ve done is worth any money we have to spend to get (the steers) processed.”
Funding for food jump-starts program
The credit goes not only to FFA students, but to Meghan Miller, agriculture science teacher and FFA adviser, who started working at Lost River in fall 2017.
Miller pursued the grants and community support needed to raise and harvest the steers and purchase feed and equipment. She applied for and received a $3,000 National FFA Living-to-Serve grant, which jump-started the programs, and has pursued other grants and community support for the school. She also brought with her chickens to start the school’s coop.
Since then, with the help of the community, Lost River Junior-Senior High School has built a barn, replacing one that had been destroyed by fire 15 years prior and installed an underground main irrigation line to pasture. Students are helping the district’s maintenance crew put finishing touches on the barn, digging trenches, installing the forms and pouring concrete and finishing electrical and plumbing work.
Corrals, designed and built by students, are scheduled to be completed this month. Next up is planting the long-furrowed pasture so the school can provide grazing space for its farm animals.
“It’s quite remarkable what she’s done, and it just gets better and better,” Ongman says. “She has really brought an initiative, a vision and a mission for kids to be a part of and the kids have responded. It’s really reinvigorated our students,” he adds. “In our community, everything’s driven by agriculture, and being able to provide learning experiences for our kids in that industry is huge.”
Community lends a hand
The community responded by throwing its support behind the school’s farm-to-school initiatives. Once news got around about Miller’s plans for her $3,000 FFA grant, Dunlea Farms and King Ranch stepped up and each donated two steers. Walker Brothers and Patterson Farms donated hay. Winema Elevators donated grain. Traci and Jordan Reed donated the pig that lives in a pen on the school’s campus.
“The community allowed us to stretch those dollars even further, which was a blessing,” Ongman says.
Over the summer, ranchers and farmers offered to keep the sheep and steers on their pastures. When some of the calves got sick — suffering from bloat — local ranchers volunteered to help ag science and FFA students treat them, using remedies that still allowed the beef to be served in the school cafeteria instead of high-powered antibiotics.
The grant money was then used to buy any needed feed and equipment for the cattle, lambs and chickens, including panels and a feed trough.
Miller is in the process of applying for a second National FFA Living-to-Serve grant in hopes of continuing to grow the program. A Northwest Farm Credit grant of $4,500 partially funded the main line from an irrigation pump to what will soon be an established pasture. Pathway CTE (Career and Technical Education) Funding will fund the rest of the $7,000 project.
Ongman said the education component of raising calves for meat is tremendous, and he credited Miller for providing those opportunities for students.
“There was a lot of cross-curricula education that went into it because students could figure out daily rate of gain and feed rations, and when they get to a finished weight,” he says.
Colton Wright, a sophomore and FFA officer, is involved in the farm-to-school programs.
“FFA has broadened my learning and showed me everything I could do in agriculture,” he says, adding that he hopes to one day start his own agriculture chemical company and get his pilot’s and crop duster’s licenses. He also likes the outcome: “It’s cool to know the breakfast we eat in the morning is from eggs our chapter has grown.”
Junior Dylan Reid, an animal science and ag mechanics student, often collects the eggs from the coop. “If (Mrs. Miller) needs something built, I’ll build it,” he adds. He hopes to attend Universal Technical Institute and study welding and diesel mechanics.
Miller is thrilled with the support and the results so far.
“A year ago, there was a lot of nothing here,” she says. “The greenhouse wasn’t functioning. Out there,” she says motioning to the land adjacent to the rural campus, “was basically a blank slate. There was nothing but weeds. But now we have a chicken coop, we have a barn built. We will have by springtime, a pasture and working irrigation and a corral for practicing showmanship and a place for kids to keep their animals.”
Miller also hopes to breed the pig, which is being cared for in a pen on campus, so students can see her farrowing out the babies. Last summer, six students bought lambs from the FFA chapter and raised them for Klamath County Fair projects. Overall, last year Lost River doubled the number of students who raised and marketed animals for the fair.
“They raised them to market ready, took them to the fair and sold them,” she says. “It’s more than just for students to see the hands-on piece of actually raising the animals. They also learn the business behind it.