Hall County Schools wants students to see all levels of beef production in the coming years.
“We have so many kids who really think that hamburgers come from Kroger or McDonalds,” Superintendent Will Schofield said. “This will be a real opportunity.”
The district has been making progress on its agribusiness plan over the past year, and with recent federal CARES funding, it plans to build a meat processing plant near East Hall High School. The plant will likely be under 5,000 square feet, Schofield said, and it will be used for beef and pork production, with potential for some small capacity for poultry as well.
The fiscal year 2021-2022 budget includes $1 million for this plant, and Schofield said they have set aside an additional $1.8 million in future CARES funds as well.
“Construction prices have gone through the roof over the last 18 months,” Schofield said. “What we thought we would be able to build for $2 million is probably now $3 million plus.”
The plant is designed to expose students to agricultural business from farm to table and show them different career paths in the industry, Schofield said.
The long-term plan for the plant would be to provide meat both for the local community and the school district’s own protein needs, rather than relying only on their usual meat vendors. So, it could be a revenue source — or at least save the district money on nutrition costs — as well as a place for student instruction.
“The COVID pandemic showed us just how fragile this country is in terms of its protein supply,” Schofield said. But he said he does not know yet what the most cost effective method would be of splitting production between the school’s nutrition needs and getting a new revenue source by selling to people in the community.
“I know that we could use every pound of protein that we produce when we get to that point,” he said. “We’ll just have to see if that’s the most profitable way to utilize that.”
He said they have not considered any green or organic farming practices at this stage.
Georgia’s Commissioner of Agriculture, Gary Black, backs the plans for the plant as well, and Schofield said that he has sent members of his staff with Hall County Schools officials to survey other plants in the state, including a plant at University of Georgia.
“We applaud the leadership and foresight of Superintendent Schofield and the Hall County School Board for their vision of this unique program designed to address multiple needs in the community,” Black wrote in a statement. “This is a perfect combination of meeting local demand for product and giving producers an additional marketing opportunity, all the while preparing our young people for potential career opportunities.”
The plant could present opportunities for high-paying career paths in agriculture such as becoming a meat cutter and exposing young students to this industry is the first step.
Schofield said he wants to begin the permit process for the plant in the next few months, but there is no current timetable for the plant.
The district’s 51-acre Agribusiness Center has made progress in the last few months. The center now has 29 beef cows and one bull, honeybee farms and plans for portable chicken houses with egg-laying chickens in the coming months. This fall, young students will be able to take field trips there and high school students could incorporate the center into career, technical and agricultural education classes (CTAE).
“That is the hope that an agriculture class could actually talk about the reproductive cycle of a cow and then get involved in synchronizing them and getting them impregnated and actually see it happen,” Schofield said.
Agricultural education teachers and some students help take care of the cows and the rest of the property right now, said Zach Free, an agricultural education teacher at East Hall Middle School. Courtney Ryan, who teaches agricultural education at North High School, said they try to work with the cattle a couple times a week and try to interact with them during times of day when they won’t get overheated, especially when cows are pregnant and they are more sensitive to those conditions. The cows also have lots of shade and automatic water on the property, Free said.
“We try to make it as easy on them and as stress free as we can,” Ryan said.
Free said the center will help improve his lesson planning by allowing students to see the cattle and processes to breed them up close.
“You already have the small group of kids who want to do this already,” Free said. “But once you start bringing 30-60 kids out here, getting to see the full aspect of it, getting to put their hands on it, some of them change their minds about career paths.”
Some students involved with the Future Farmers of America and 4-H programs have already worked with the cows some this summer. Middle school and rising high school students have dewormed cows, ear tagged them and administered vaccines, said Bailee Fair, a rising eighth grader at North Hall Middle School. She first got to come see the center’s cows in May, but she’s familiar with these processes from showing cows at Future Farmers of America competitions.
Rising ninth grader at North Hall High School, Bella Grier, said she is excited about coming back to the center during the school year.
“It’s amazing that we have this opportunity to have an AG center,” Grier said. “Hopefully it can open up more programs for schools that don’t have it and show kids being farmers is fun.”
Starting this year, students will be able to learn about the entire cow breeding process, and teachers will be able to build lesson plans around these cycles. For example, Free said, they could visit the center when cows are in heat, when they are artificially inseminated and when they give birth.
Seven cows have already been artificially inseminated, Schofield said.
Ryan explained that cows are typically pregnant for 9-10 months, so students could see new calves in the spring semester this coming year. The cows they have now are one to two years old and have not had any calves before, Ryan said, and complications during birth are slightly more common for a cow’s first pregnancy.
Other students have worked with the center’s honeybees, whose homes were also built by East Hall Middle School eighth graders. The district plans to use honey harvested from the center to fundraise for agricultural programs, Free said.