Students experience new ag science facility for the first time

It’s not a big red barn, but Seymour High School’s new Ag-Science & Research facility is taking students back to the farm.

Located on a 5-acre site in the Freeman Field Industrial Park on the city’s southwest side, the 12,000-square-foot building is providing educators, students and even the community with new tools and opportunities to teach, explore and promote agriculture.

Ag teachers Jeanna Eppley and Micah Wallace led their first classes in the new building last week.

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On Feb. 26, some of Eppley’s students collected soil samples from a nearby field and then tested them in the new classroom. In previous years, Eppley would collect the samples herself and bring them to the school.

A few days later, Wallace’s class learned how to make and preserve strawberry jam in the food science lab.

“Things went very well,” Eppley said. “Everyone was excited to be out at the new facility. I was anticipating more hiccups, so I’m very impressed with how smooth the transition has been.”

By collecting and testing soils, students will help determine what nutrients the soil may need for optimum crop growth and make decisions based on their work.

“The school farm can now serve as a hands-on tool for the classroom again,” Eppley said. “We will be able to show students all the steps of farming and better teach about the agricultural industry that supports farmers.”

Wallace said she was surprised by how well students did during their first foods lab.

“They were very cautious and respectful of the new equipment and have been doing a great job making sure things are used properly, cleaned well and put back in their places,” Wallace said.

Both teachers said the biggest challenge has been getting students into a new routine in the middle of the school year, but even that is getting easier in just the second week, and students are enthusiastic about the change.

Students are bused to the facility in the afternoons and back to the high school after class is over, a trip that takes less than 10 minutes.

“My class has been all positive. They have been waiting to get out to the farm, and now, it’s a reality,” Eppley said.

“Many have asked what other classes are offered or will be offered out there so that they can get their schedules changed for next year,” Wallace said.

Construction of the $2 million facility was completed in 2017, but there was not enough money available in the project’s budget to finish the interior of the building at that time.

The school corporation invested an additional $400,000 in 2018, and Rose Acre Farms donated $50,000 to the project.

The food science lab is equipped with industrial-quality supplies, appliances and equipment and can be used as both a classroom and to serve as a resource for the community for events where a large amount of food needs to be prepared.

“If we think of the phrase ‘Farm to Fork,’ this food science class focuses on what happens to food commodities once they leave the farm,” Wallace said. “We look at product development, product processing, food safety, food chemistry and laws and regulations related to food.”

With food safety and food security being such hot topics in the ag industry today, Wallace said it’s important that students as consumers understand how their food is being made and processed.

The food science course also gives students a glimpse at careers in the ag business and food science sectors that are a large part of the ag industry but are not the traditional farming careers, she said.

Besides the classroom and food science lab, the facility also features a large open shop area that will be used to teach students how to operate and maintain farm machinery using the department’s new $300,000 CaseIH Magnum 220 tractor. The tractor was a donation from CaseIH and local distributor Jacobi Sales Inc. in Seymour.

What makes the Ag-Science & Research Farm stand out and work as a better option for the school’s agriculture program is its ability to provide an “authentic” farming experience, Eppley said.

The building is surrounded by school-owned farm ground, and students will be able to work out in the fields, planting and harvesting corn, soybeans and other produce. In years past, that work has been outsourced to local farmers.

Sophomore Brayden Wilson is in Eppley’s plant and soil science class and said he likes the opportunity to be able to go in the field and do more hands-on labs.

“I’m looking forward to going outside with the tractor and learning how to grow corn and other types of crops,” he said. “I find the classroom and the (farm ground) outside the building most beneficial. We can go outside and get a sample of soil, then bring it into the classroom, which has plenty of room for labs, and test it for things like nitrogen.”

Freshman Adam Newkirk said he also enjoys having a new environment to study agriculture.

“It provides a good opportunity for kids that don’t get to have field experiences,” he said. “I feel that kids can have a more hands-on experience in the new building, helping kids realize the importance of agriculture in our society.”

The new facility also boasts a welding lab and an animal science lab to give students experiences in those subject areas, too. The welding lab will be finished up this spring.

Once the welding lab is equipped, Eppley said she hopes to have a formal open house for the public.

Newkirk said he is looking forward to taking a welding class at the new facility.

“I think the whole building is beneficial, but the shop will definitely benefit me the most,” he said.

Eppley believes the new facility and in-field experience will help motivate students, even those she considers nontraditional agriculture students, to pursue careers in the industry.

Not only is the number of jobs in the industry increasing but the type of students needed for those jobs is changing, she said.

“I believe we have a disconnect of what it means to work in the field of agriculture,” she said. “Students are not understanding the need and the importance of this industry. We have a local demand for these types of jobs, and we have the opportunity to train these students to work toward those careers.”

Agriculture education today includes training students how to use advanced technology to teach what really goes into production agriculture, how to be informed consumers in regards to the sustainability and safety of food and to support the next generation charged with feeding the world’s population.

“For generations, students were able to go to the farm. As times changed, it became more difficult for students to be involved,” she said. “Now, back on the farm, we can utilize the land to motivate the students toward pursuing these jobs.”

The facility also provides more dedicated space for agriculture study than the high school has available.

Eppley said the lab area at the high school wasn’t suitable for the ag science curriculum they teach and there was no room to grow.

“We are running out of room at the high school,” Eppley said. “Miss Wallace and I were sharing space. One of us was always teaching in the shop talking over the air handler and trying to facilitate learning in a less than ideal environment.”

The new facility allows the department to expand its agriculture curriculum by adding welding, diesel mechanics and other ag-related courses in the near future, Eppley said.

“We will look to add resources as programming grows and are striving to build the best program to meet the diverse needs of our students and our community,” she said.

The department also plans to add an advanced life science course in foods so students can earn dual credit through Purdue University.

Having the new facility not only lends to students’ development of technical agriculture skills but marketable soft skills, too, Wallace said.

“Both of us teach curriculum that is conducive to group work, problem solving and critical thinking,” she said. “This building obviously gives us the space needed for group work, but we now have the possibilities to facilitate on-the-farm problem solving and critical thinking scenarios that are hands-on experiences.”

Some classes will remain at the high school for the time being, including the department’s horticulture class that utilizes the school’s greenhouse.

This summer, students enrolled in Supervised Agricultural Experience will make use of the new ag facility for meetings and classwork.

Besides classes, the school’s FFA program also is taking advantage of the new building as a point of purchase to sell sweet corn grown on the school farm.

FFA has been using the facility since earlier this winter for district and chapter functions, including a professional development day for district advisers, a degree ceremony and a game night.

The school corporation also has utilized the building for special dinners and meetings.

“We have had a lot of people coming to tour the building, FFA chapters from other counties and even from other states,” Eppley said.

But the uses aren’t limited to Seymour High School, she said.

Wright Implement has used the large room for a couple of demonstrations and farmer training programs, 4-H conducted an educational callout for the county and the state 4-H will be hosting a southern region education day later this spring.

“We really have used the building a lot leading up to starting the classes, and we hope to continue to see it being used by others in the community,” Eppley said.