Students in the Missoula County Public Schools agriculture program in Montana have been raising cattle, pigs, sheep, goats and chickens on the 100-acre school farm for more than a century. In the past, livestock were sold to a processor or auction barn. More recently, Missoula County Public Schools invested $1 million in a state-of-the-art meat-processing facility so students could learn how to process the meat they raised. It’s the first USDA state-inspected high school farm in the nation.
“We can teach the entire food cycle to students – from conception to consumption – in the meat lab,” says animal science teacher and FFA advisor Tom Andres.
Three agriculture teachers – Andres, Kristy Rothe and Cindy Arnott – work with students to teach food safety, butchering, food packaging and marketing. The hands-on curriculum gives students an appreciation for where their food comes from, says FFA chapter president Justice Betts, 17.
“We get to see the hard work and dedication that it takes to raise animals and process them for sale,” she says.
The program also provides ground beef to the school district; Rothe calls it, “school farm to school lunch.” It will also sell premium cuts of beef, pork, chicken, goat and mutton to the local community. Andres says there is a hunger for sustainably raised meat that the FFA chapter can fulfill.
Missoula County Public Schools isn’t the only district teaching students to process meat.
More Than Missoula
Students at Centerpoint High School in Amity, Ark., also operate a processing facility. The program has been running since the 1980s, and local farmers and hunters have come to count on students to provide highly skilled and affordable processing services.
Thanks to a grant from the state department, meats instructor and FFA advisor Marcus Crawley purchased new equipment and plans to build a smokehouse to cure ham and bacon. The goal is to process USDA-inspected meat that can be sold in an onsite retail shop. Crawley also hopes FFA members in the rural community will learn skills that could help them get jobs after graduation.
Bryce Stratton, 17, vice president of the Centerpoint FFA, appreciates the opportunity to develop hands-on skills that could lead to a future career. “It means a lot that people trust us to process their animals,” he says.
Missoula County Public Schools senior Max Andres believes the meat-processing facility will also help his educational goals. He plans to use the lab to practice for the FFA meat judging contest and complete his supervised agricultural experience (SAE).
“The meat lab is great for learning the different cuts and experimenting with cuts [of meat] that you never see anywhere else,” he says. “It’s an example of how we’re getting real-world experience and solving real-world problems.”