Two Nigerian Dwarf goats might seem like an unconventional addition to an FFA program, but the animals have enhanced the Mulrennan Middle FFA in Valrico, Fla., in ways members never could have imagined.
Named Aspen and Sparta, the goats were donated by Shelley Fehrenbacher, who owns Valrico-based Fallen Oak Farms as an extension of her goat therapy program. Fehrenbacher has three daughters who have participated in the Mulrennan Middle FFA, including her youngest child, Alexis, the chapter’s current secretary.
Aspen and Sparta joined the chapter’s collection of steers, pigs, chickens, rabbits and ducks in 2018. According to Kallee Cook, a Mulrennan Middle FFA advisor, the goats made perfect sense because they gave FFA members an opportunity to get used to working with farm animals, which is something they may have avoided in the past due to fear or uncertainty.
“Sometimes our FFA members are intimidated by livestock, especially large animals, and they don’t necessarily want to raise a steer or a pig for a project,” Cook says. “Because Aspen and Sparta are so small, many students feel more comfortable around them and are more inclined to connect with them. They’ve bonded with the goats and trained them to walk on leashes, and they help me take care of them — grooming, feeding, watering – you name it. In fact, a group of five Mulrennan Middle FFA members have made caring for the goats their supervised agricultural experience (SAE) projects.”
Aspen and Sparta serve as therapy and emotional support animals, too. Along with Fehrenbacher and her daughters, Mulrennan Middle FFA members bring the goats to local elementary schools and they read to special needs students. The goats have been to area high schools, as well.
“These goats go right up to students, and you can see a bond forming almost immediately,” Cook says. “It’s been amazing to witness.”
Goat therapy has been so impactful that two of Fehrenbacher’s daughters, Katrina and Chloe, who both serve as officers of the Durant FFA Chapter in Plant City, Fla., have created a club at their high school called Mindfulness, A Positive State of Mind. The club gives members a chance to get acquainted with Aspen and Sparta, along with other goats from their family’s farm, through activities like goat yoga while also learning how to manage challenges such as test-related anxiety and everyday stress.
“More than 100 kids at Durant High School signed up for the Mindfulness, A Positive State of Mind club right away, and I think that speaks volumes,” Fehrenbacher says. “Plus, this mental health-focused club may be the perfect introduction to agriculture and FFA for students who aren’t involved in the school’s ag program. (Who can resist the appeal of a cute goat?) We’re hopeful that it will spread to other schools and draw more members to the FFA chapter while helping students improve their daily lives.”