When sophomore Aubrey Jones walks into his agriculture class at Mantachie High School, he isn’t sitting at a desk listening to a lecture. On any given day, he might be driving a tractor, harvesting sorghum or watering plants in the school’s greenhouse. Aubrey is one of 136 students at Mantachie High School who participate in the school’s thriving agriculture program and FFA chapter.
“I’ve enjoyed learning how to drive farm equipment like tractors, cutters, planters and sprayers,” he says. “I also like learning how to start seeds in the greenhouse. Our agriculture classes give us a lot of hands-on projects.”
Mantachie High School’s agriculture program is best known in the community for its annual fall sorghum sale. Every May for the last 14 years, students have planted three acres of sorghum on land adjacent to the school. The following October, over a three-week period, students harvest the crop, crush it to separate the juice, cook the juice in a large stainless-steel pan and bottle the resulting sorghum to sell to eager buyers waiting to drizzle it on a hot biscuit. The sorghum sells for $6 per pint or $12 per quart.
“The students make 50 to 60 gallons of sorghum every year. It’s kind of a lost art – you have to learn to boil the juice until it gets to just the right thickness,” says Joe Rogers, who has been teaching agriculture at Mantachie High School since 2005. “Our students typically earn about $2,000 from the sale. We don’t even have to advertise – the sorghum sells itself. Last year, we sold out in two weeks.”
Students record their sales each day and track their net profits.
“The sorghum project teaches them business skills like interacting with customers and making change. They get to see the whole process, from planting to harvest,” Rogers says. “We have one customer in Arkansas who always buys 10 gallons of our sorghum and gives it to his employees for Christmas. We’ve also mailed it to troops overseas and as far away as Alaska.”
The money students earn goes toward helping pay for trips to FFA competitions or materials they need.
Every spring, Mantachie FFA members switch their focus from sorghum to their annual greenhouse plant sale. They start planting seeds in the school’s two greenhouses in January, and over the next several weeks water and fertilize them. By late March, students have tomato and pepper plants, and all kinds of flowers ready to sell to the community.
“The greenhouse plants sell out by mid-May,” Rogers says. “Many of our students have never been around plants or animals at home. Only a few come from full-time farm families, so for the majority of our kids, these projects are the only way they are exposed to agriculture.”
The school even has its own meat processing facility and a 40-by-80-foot FFA barn, where students can care for cattle they show in regional cattle shows. In the meat processing facility, students help process deer, hogs and beef, which also generates money for the ag program.
“People bring us animals they kill hunting, and we cut it into steaks, hamburger meat and all the other cuts you’d find in a grocery store,” says Matt Spradling, who teaches agriculture and two meats courses at Mantachie High School. “I have 17 students in meats class, and this year we have [processed] 547 deer and hogs, and eight beef cattle.”
Deer season runs from October through January, and community members pay $25 for students to process a deer. Every student has the opportunity to process two of their own deer for free each season.
“Mantachie is the only high school meat processing facility in the state,” Spradling says. “It helps us raise money to take kids to contests and trips.”
It also can lead to future careers.
“I have one student who is in my meats class and is already working at a local grocery store cutting meat for them,” Spradling says.
For Spradling and Rogers, teaching agriculture at Mantachie High School is a labor of love – and it brings back memories of their youth. Both men are graduates of Mantachie High School.
“It’s home, and I’m thankful to be here,” Spradling says. “Traditional agriculture is a dying thing, and many people don’t know anything about it. I love showing students what it’s about and the places it can take them in life, and giving them the same opportunities I had.”
While Spradling specializes in meats, Rogers specializes in forestry. In addition to agriculture, he teaches two forestry courses and oversees the school’s sawmill. Forestry students learn to cut lumber from logs brought in by community members, and the school earns a fee for each foot of board they cut.
“If it wasn’t for our community, we wouldn’t be able to do all the projects we do,” Spradling says. “Our community supports our agriculture program year round, and we thank them for that.” |