In the early morning hours of March 3, 2020, a succession of tornadoes ripped through middle Tennessee. The longest of the five stayed on the ground for 63 minutes, reaching 165 mph over 60.13 miles. At the midpoint of that devastating path was Mt. Juliet Christian Academy (MJCA) and its 5-year-old agriculture department, led by teacher and FFA advisor Brittany Barnett.
The school lost the entire second story, and the rooms on the first floor were flooded. Barnett’s personally provided electrical tools were corroded. Her entire curriculum and students’ SAE records were soaked. The courtyard used for landscape design was destroyed. The storage building was leveled. The official jackets they’d just finished fundraising for were thrown in the creek, embedded with fiberglass or lost completely. The sheep pens they’d just paid off were uprooted and “wadded up like balls,” Barnett says.
“It was a sinking feeling,” she adds. “I know it can all be replaced, but we can’t apply for grants because we’re a private school. All we had, all we’ve built – we’ve raised ourselves.”
There was one glimmer of hope. The makeshift-barn that housed the department’s Polypay sheep remained standing. “Everything that has mattered to my students was in that portable,” Barnett says. “If that had been leveled, I don’t know if we could have come back from this.”
The 24 sheep are now spread out across three farms in the Mt. Juliet area. (Six students, coined the “sheep squad” by Barnett, still provide all the labor.) And that’s just one example of how the agriculture community has stepped up for the MJCA FFA Chapter. FFA alumni have sent money and had planned to pay for a charter bus to the Tennessee state convention (cancelled due to COVID-19). The local farmers co-op has reached out to industry partners on the chapter’s behalf, and WW Livestock Systems donated a sheep chute.
To help with the loss of her curriculum and the challenge of COVID-19-related virtual learning, the National Corn Growers Association sent Barnett a set of 54 fermentation labs, individually packaged in manila envelopes, postage included, to mail to her students. And thanks to the outpouring of support, the chapter may come back with more than it lost; namely, a multipurpose barn with a shop. No details have been finalized.
“Our ag industry is outstanding,” Barnett says. “It made me feel like I wasn’t alone. I felt part of a team and just really proud. Ag hasn’t missed a shot at helping.”
Her students have recognized that, too. Their two years as an FFA chapter armed them with an important perspective in their loss. “FFA has given them something to build toward,” Barnett says. “They see that they’re part of something, that there’s reward for their work, that nobody wants to see a chapter fail. They know we’re going to be OK.”