It all started with a coach seeking much-needed donations to support his school football program.
In 2013, Jeff Gibson, coach of Wingfield High School’s Falcons in Jackson, approached Cindy Ayers-Elliott, owner of Foot Print Farms, for financial support. Ayers-Elliott offered a creative alternative. She said Gibson’s 4-H group could rent two acres of her land for $1. Players could join the club, work the land and earn revenue. Gibson, who was raised on a farm near Centreville, was all in.
Gibson and other administrators cultivated this fledgling idea into Wingfield High School’s Academy of Natural Resource Utilization. The academy introduces students to agribusiness through plant and soil science, food systems, agricultural systems, mechanical systems, business fundamentals and agricultural economics.
“It’s applied academics,” Gibson says. “We apply our academics to the natural resources to produce a product.”
Students learn by growing produce in three gardens on school property. They sell their crops at farmers markets and make products, such as salsas or facial creams from the produce.They’ve even grown hundreds of pounds of lettuce, broccoli and collard greens specifically for animals at the Jackson Zoo.
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This unique program is made possible by teamwork and a coordinated chain of mentorship. Students are first eligible to join the program as sophomores where they grow brassicas including kale, mustard greens, turnips and cabbage to help fund the academy in the Experimental Garden. Juniors help teach sophomores how to plant, cultivate, harvest and sell, as well as work as apprentices to seniors, who are running individual plots of land as small farms in the Senior Entrepreneur Garden.
Entrepreneurship is a key component to the academy, as seniors must also develop a value-added product from their crops.
“We really focus on that with the seniors,” says Gibson, who serves as project manager, academy director and teaches English writing by guiding students in writing business plans for their small farms.
For his project, one senior grew cayenne and jalapeño peppers.
“He made an excellent hot sauce from those,” Gibson recalls.
Extension Service agents at Alcorn State University helped the student develop the product to sell, and the student received a partial scholarship to Hinds Community College (HCC) at Utica as a result. The college partners with the academy, helping students earn college credits and financial aid after successfully completing their academy classes at Wingfield.
Gibson has help running the academy. Kenitra Wallace, Jackson Public Schools academies coach, finds funding for field trips to colleges and businesses like the John Deere production facility in Louisiana. An HCC professor teaches the academy’s soil science class. Other administrators support efforts to diversify and expand the academy’s learning opportunities.
“It’s definitely a team effort,” Gibson says. “Just like football.”
Gibson also serves as advisor to the Dr. George Washington Carver Future Scientists and Engineers 4-H Club. Gibson says about 98% of academy students also join 4-H, and the majority of the students in both groups are members of the football team. In fact, the president, vice president and secretary of the 4-H Club are starters on the team.
“Many of the football players, as a tradition, have stayed with our agriculture program,” Gibson says.
Not all students find their calling in growing.
“One of the things I am most proud of is the kids who have gone on to become certified diesel mechanics as a result of working in our academy,” Gibson says. “They got their first understanding of mechanics working on an old tractor we were allowed to borrow.”
Regardless of the career path, Gibson says it’s imperative for all students to learn how food is produced and what good food looks like, tastes like, and how it benefits the human body. In the academy’s early years, Gibson learned that his experiences growing up as a fourth-generation farmer were very different than his students, who come from some tough circumstances. Gibson recalls discussing the importance of adding lime to soil to adjust its pH balance.
“One of the kids asked, ‘How are you going to get all those limes out here on the ground?’ All he knew about limes was from a Sprite commercial,” Gibson says.
Another student told his coach that cows come from “the cow factory.”
Learning about fresh, naturally grown food is important, Gibson says, and he’s proud that academy students perform better in school, have fewer disciplinary problems, and go on to college at higher percentages than the Wingfield student body as a whole. But he’s equally proud of the life skills academy students gain. “We teach kids the necessity of punctuality and hard work, how to get along with people, and, most importantly, how to produce something for yourself,” Gibson emphasizes. “To help a kid grow or make a product that can make a livelihood or makes a contribution to humanity, that’s why we’re here.”