Michael Holland’s experience raising livestock involves feeding, exercising and grooming his sheep before and after school.
That’s after he fights through busy traffic on Interstate 30 to get to a barn on North Las Vegas Trail.
The 19-year-old senior at Arlington Heights High School, acknowledges he didn’t see himself as an agriculturist or a rancher when he was younger.
But when Holland enrolled in Arlington Heights’ agriculture and horticulture program his freshman year, he was intrigued with the school’s FFA program and quickly joined. Today, he’s an urban student farmer raising his sheep, cotton, and broiler chickens.
And he has a firm understanding of how food ends up on the dinner table.
“A lot of people are out of touch about livestock and agriculture,” Holland said. “People don’t really know where their food comes from and the efforts it takes.”
Holland is among Arlington Height’s 197 students in FFA (formerly Future Farmers of America) an organization that is seeing growth interest in urban school districts.
Shanna Weaver, a spokeswoman from the Stock Show, said there appears to be “growth spurt” among urban agriculture programs participating in the Fort Worth Stock Show.
Urban chapters of FFA and 4-H clubs are well represented at Fort Worth, she said, from the Birdville and Grapevine-Colleyville school districts locally to some from the Houston area.
Arlington Heights has 50 students showing livestock or agricultural mechanic projects at this year’s Stock Show.
Area ag-science teachers say students from the city are curious to learn about the economy, science and technology that fuels the food industry. The skills gained in raising animals or growing plants helps them see how agribusiness shapes the national economy.
Educators said students are also drawn to the responsibility and the challenge of livestock competition.
“They have to feed those animals twice a day,” said Brent Drennan, assistant chief superintendent over the Stock Show’s sheep market lamb show. “Not everybody can play athletics out here. Not everybody is a basketball or football player.”
In 2005, when Cody Davenport began teaching agriculture and livestock studies at Arlington Heights, there were 34 students in the FFA program. The chapter has grown as classes increased in number and sophistication. There are 300 students taking agriculture science or livestock related classes at Arlington Heights. The teachers have gone from one to three.
“We are still young,” said Linsey Shands, one of the campus’s agriculture science teachers.
Arlington Heights students are raising animals in a barn located on Las Vegas Trail in west Fort Worth. They also raise quail and broiler chickens on campus. Raising animals allows students understand animal growth cycles.
“The kids are able to see that change — sometimes it is daily,” Davenport said.
Urban student farmers and ranchers face challenges as they try to perfect their skills — the biggest issue is not having a barn at their house or open space to exercise their animals. At the Birdville school district barn in Haltom City, for example, young steers are sometimes exercised on treadmills.
‘We don’t have that much space outside,” said Morgan Fildey, 17, a junior in the Birdville FFA program.
If a student is committed to ag-science, they learn firsthand that raising livestock or growing food for market is an investment in time and money.
Ag-science teachers said raising livestock is a big commitment that also depends on support from parents — some of whom may not have any agriculture background.
“If a kid doesn’t drive, that means the parent has to go to the barn as well,” Shands said, adding that it is not uncommon to see a parent reading in their car while their son or daughter grooms an animal in the barn.
‘It’s a hometown show’
Every year, the Stock Show takes place just miles away from Arlington Heights, which is located at I-30 and Hulen Street. The proximity allows students to participate in livestock exhibitions and other FFA opportunities, Davenport said.
“The Stock Show is in our backyard,” Davenport said. “It’s a local show. It’s a hometown show.”
In 2005, the Stock Show and the Fort Worth school district dedicated a $500,000, 9,900-square-foot barn on 10 acres on North Vegas Trail.
Lambs, goats, steers, poultry and beehives are kept at that barn, Davenport said.
Several years ago, when the barn needed more space, Davenport said the Stock Show helped.
In recent years, the Arlington Heights program has also benefited from the donation of the best livestock shown by youth at the Stock Show.
“Those buyers make the decision of what is going to happen to those animals,” said Weaver. “It is their property.”
Weaver said some buyers have opted to donate the animals so that students in Fort Worth schools can learn from them and programs can get a boost.
Last year, the top eight champion animals — which sold to local business leaders at the annual Sale of Champions for a combined $542,000 — were donated to the program. All but one lamb and one goat were resold at market value and those dollars went into Arlington Heights’ ag-science programs and FFA, Davenport said.
Davenport said one lamb and one goat became part of learning how the food chain works. Students learned how to tell when an animal is at its “peak.” A college professor explained how meat processing works. The animals were eventually processed and used by the district’s culinary program to learn how to cook these types of cuts.
“These animals are raised for consumption,” Davenport said. “That is the sole purpose of agriculture.”
‘Teach them farm to plate’
Greg Clifton, lead agriculture science teacher for Birdville schools, said he too is helping more city students to understand agribusiness. His students raise goats, sheep and steers at makeshift barn that used to be a skating rink.
“I teach them farm to plate,” Clifton said. “We are raising these animals to feed the world.”
It’s not always an easy lesson, though.
“It’s hard,” Clifton said, recalling one student who was raising a goat. “I’ve cried with a boy who was 6-foot-6 and a hockey player.”
Despite these lessons, Clifton said their program is on the rise through the district’s career and technology programs.
“Our interest in agriculture is phenomenal,” he said.
At Fort Worth’s Diamond Hill-Jarvis High School, paperwork is underway to create an FFA chapter, said Collin Alexander, a career and technology teacher.
“We are still in our infancy stages,” Alexander said, adding that his group has about 40 members who are gearing up to show rabbits at the Tarrant County Livestock Show in March. His students serve as volunteers at this year’s Stock Show, he said.
At Grapevine-Colleyville schools, there are 125 students in the FFA program. There are also plans to renovate a barn that was built in the 1980s at Grapevine High School. The barn sits behind the tennis courts.
In the Keller school district, there are 362 students in the FFA program and growing interest in agriculture science classes. The district has three teachers and may add more to the program.
Caroline Force, 16, a junior in Birdville’s FFA program, raised a sheep named, “Uber,” after the car-sharing program. She said the name was inspired when she picked up her lamb and joked with family that they had started a “Lamb Uber.”
She said city kids shouldn’t take the approach that farming and ranching is just for those live in rural Texas.
“If you have an interest, go for it,” Force said.
Staff writer Sandra Engelland contributed to this report, which contains information from Star-Telegram archives.