FOR THE RECORD

Urban Farming: DMPS Program Marks National Agriculture Day

Thursday, March 8th, 2012

McCombs Middle School students hold some baby chicks at the DMPS agriculture facilities during a tour on National Ag Day.

“Yes! We Have No Bananas!” is a hit tune from a long ago Broadway show but it could never be the fight song for the urban oasis that is the Des Moines Public Schools’ horticulture and animal science program. After all, their greenhouse is the only commercial one in Iowa that sells banana trees! And that’s not all.

Ordinarily one of the district’s unintentionally best-kept secrets, the program was bustling today with tours of its facilities at 201 County Line Road in observance of National Agriculture Day. The curriculum includes a local chapter of Future Farmers of America (FFA), which was recently one of the first FFA chapters in Iowa to be awarded a “Planting a Seed” grant by the Iowa Food & Family Project which is sponsored by the Iowa Soybean Association.

A menagerie of wildlife is raised on the grounds, located near Blank Park Zoo, a close partner that provides student internships among other resources.

There are nine breeds of poultry, sheep, assorted exotic birds, chinchillas and even some sugar gliders, a species of flying squirrel (no moose), to name just a few.

And then there are Duke and Big Mac.

They’re a pair of Holstein calves purchased and donated to the program by East senior Shay Devick when they were merely days old. Now they’re up to about 250 pounds apiece. About a year from now, when they reach 700 pounds, they’ll be delivered into the custody of the local restaurant that’s already bought them. By then Shay will have shown them at the county fair. Already she spent New Year’s Eve in Big Mac’s stall, nursing him through an illness he was suffering from at the time. She and her fellow classmates/caretakers say they’re as attached to Duke and Big Mac as anyone gets to family pets so they try not to dwell on the certain fate that awaits the two steers.

The students enrolled in the program, numbering about a hundred, are used to doing chores for homework and extra credit. They take turns on evenings, weekends and throughout the summer feeding and grooming livestock and tending the flora in the greenhouse. Next month it will be time again for the annual spring plant sale which generates more than $60,000 each year, proceeds that are plowed right back into the steadily expanding operations.

Besides hands-on instruction about plants and animals students also receive training in commercial landscaping. The “laboratory” on County Line Road features a display of that artwork too, in addition to housing for the animal husbandry projects and the botanical inventory.

The “Old Macdonald” in this scenario is Cynthia Snell who grew up on an Iowa farm before she came to teach at Central Campus. And she has countrified many a born and bred city kid over the years. Cases in point are Devick, who plans to go on to a career in agribusiness management, and Joe Shelton, a junior at Lincoln High School. Last year he was Vice-President of the FFA chapter and this year he serves as its Director of Community Service. He spearheaded a holiday project that raised donations for a local homeless shelter and also makes a great ambassador for Snell and her program when he guides visitors around the premises.

Snell says students can earn accreditation as Certified Wildlife Educators, a credential that’s sought after by places such as zoos and theme parks for their employees. The program also features partnerships with fisheries and veterinarians and is a unique blend of classwork in the Career & Tech Ed Institute at Central Campus and fieldwork on County Line Road.

While Iowa remains a state steeped in agriculture, most people are surprised when they discover a chapter of FFA thriving in a diverse, urban school district like Des Moines.

But with a moo-moo here and a cluck-cluck there, all that’s missing are cheerleaders chanting E-I-E-I-O.

See the slide show for photos from today at the animal science and horticulture facility:

 

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