Cultivating Future Farmers: Norfolk County Agricultural High School

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By Andrea Pyenson / Photos by Michael Piazza

On a frigid but sunny Tuesday afternoon in March, the three students sitting in the principal’s office of Norfolk County Agricultural High School (Norfolk Aggie) are so animated, so eager to talk about their vocational classes, caring teachers and outside-but-related activities that it’s almost disorienting. Where are the disaffected youth who sulk around so many high school hallways?

While it is rare for high school students to know what they want to be when they grow up—let alone five minutes from now —these kids are remarkably focused. Refreshingly, there is no sense that any one of them has chosen a particular class or activity because it will look good on a college transcript.

With eight buildings set on 300-plus acres in Walpole, Norfolk Aggie is one of three agricultural high schools in the Commonwealth. (The other two are Essex Agricultural and Technical in Danvers and Bristol County Agricultural in Dighton.) Its 478 students come from 68 towns, some of which are as far as 50 miles away. Because the students choose to attend the school, they are willing to put up with what others might consider sacrifices—like waking up at 4:45 to get on the bus at 5:40 for the nearly two-hour ride, as freshman Michael Zanchi of Spencer has to do. And they tolerate courses they didn’t choose, like math, without complaining because, “They want to be here,” says the principal, Tammy Quinn. She should know; she taught math at the school for 20 years before becoming assistant principal, then principal.

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On the vocational side, Norfolk Aggie offers three tracks— Animal and Marine Science, Plant and Environmental Science, and Diesel and Mechanical Technology. In their junior year, students choose a major from one of the vocational areas. The academic requirements meet Massachusetts’s curriculum guidelines. But Quinn says teachers do everything they can to make even the academic courses relevant to what the kids will be doing when they graduate. While the majority of Aggie students go on to college, Quinn says they all graduate “career ready.”

Michael Zanchi learned about the school through his uncle, whose former girlfriend, now a veterinarian, is an alumna. “I talked to her, which made me want to go,” he says. Like the other two students in the room this day, Victoria Schneider, a junior from Hanson, and Jenna Illingworth, a senior from Abington— all 4-H members—Michael has enough animals at home to constitute his own micro-farm. He lists off 48 chickens—“I started with four,” he says, explaining, “You can’t just have one.”—two ducks, a beef cow and a rabbit. Also like the others, he lives in a residential neighborhood, on roughly an acre of land.

Though Michael’s parents support his interests, they do not necessarily share them. But there may be something in his blood that led him down this path. His paternal grandfather, who passed away before Michael was born, owned a farm in Natick that closed in 1959. Michael shares a story his mother likes to tell him: When he was four or five, after his mother had put him in his room for a nap, she heard him talking from the other room. After his nap, when she asked Michael what he was talking about, he recounts, “I said I was talking to my grandfather about the cows.”

Today, Michael’s maternal grandfather is active in 4-H with him. “He always comes to shows with me.” Over the years Michael has won eight Grand Championship awards and 6 Reserve prizes for his cows and chickens.

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Victoria Schneider, an Animal Science major who cops to being known around school as “the crazy chicken girl,” followed her older sister to the Aggie. She also inherited responsibility for the family’s numerous chickens after both her sisters left for college. While there are around 20 chickens at home now, the family has had as many as 40—along with ducks and fish in a swamp behind the house, and a dog.

Victoria used to show her chickens and their eggs and says, modestly, “I did pretty well.” She handled the birds regularly so they would not become agitated by judges’ attention and groomed them—which included clipping their nails and beaks—to present them as the physical “ideal of their breed.” Now she just sells the eggs—and eats them, of course, with the rest of the family. “You don’t even know how many breeds there are!” she exclaims. Her flock currently includes Araucanas, known for their pretty blue eggs; Silkies; White Leghorns; Rhode Island Reds and Mixed Breeds. “We used to let them free-range, but hawks came, so we put them in a pen.”     Because Norfolk does not have chickens, Victoria’s academic focus is canine science. The school keeps several dogs in its beautiful new Animal Sciences building, which was completed in the fall of 2013. When working with the animals in class, students can bring in their own dogs or use staff dogs. The building also houses fish, birds and reptiles. And there is a separate area for horses, cows and pigs.

It is notable (to a visitor at least) how little the animal science enthusiasts talk about vegetables—“You can’t walk a plant,” Michael notes—but when asked about the general topic, Victoria says her family recently moved their chicken coop from one side of the yard to the other. The side where the coop had been was well fertilized, thanks to years of chicken excrement, and in season now boasts a thriving garden. It is largely her mother’s area, but she helps maintain it. Best of all, she notes, “the chickens eat all the insects.” Jenna’s father is the family gardener. He doesn’t really eat vegetables, she says, but loves to grow them.

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Jenna says she’s been crazy about animals since she “fell in love with my older brother’s dog. As I got older, my parents realized it was not a phase.” From her own dog, who she cared for herself, Jenna graduated to a flock of chickens, four dairy goats, a rabbit and two ducks. She is known around school as “the crazy goat girl.” “I show my goats like Victoria shows her chickens,” she says. Inspired by the school’s annual Spring Show, in which students who choose to participate get hands-on experience handling cows, she also leases an Angus cow.

“If anybody met my family, they’d never guess we have goats out back,” Jenna says. One day, when she was about 12, “I texted my parents a picture of a goat and said, ‘this is what we need.’” The first one started out as a lease. After a trial period, the family bought her. She had babies and one thing led to another. Now Jenna raises dairy goats and sells their milk. She and her father make goat cheese, a craft they learned through 4-H. “My entire refrigerator will be goat’s milk,” she says, adding that her mother won’t touch the stuff. “She thinks it’s gross.” But Jenna drinks only goat milk and feeds it to her chickens. “It’s good for calcium and hardens their [egg]shells,” she says.

The son of two software-industry professionals, Henry Barth, a sophomore from Needham, has been interested in agriculture since he first attended summer camp at Natick Community Organic Farm, “when I young,” he says. He has been going back ever since, and now interns at the farm three days a week after school and five full days in the summer. He heard about Norfolk Aggie through friends.

Wearing a blue canvas Carhart vest over a red plaid flannel shirt one recent afternoon at the farm, Henry takes time out from his chores—posted daily on a board—to chat. Somewhat more reserved than his schoolmates, Henry becomes animated as he walks a visitor around the farm. Natick Community Organic Farm raises cows, pigs, goats, lambs, chickens, turkeys, and rabbits for meat. Staffers also grow fruits, vegetables, and herbs that they sell through their farm stand. Interns have their own 40- by 40-foot “apprentice garden,” in which they decide together what they want to grow, and work as a team to maintain the plot. And they help out with all other aspects of the farm.

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Last fall, Henry went along when turkeys were brought to the slaughterhouse before Thanksgiving. He admits he tries not to get attached to any of the animals, noting, “Everything has a purpose.” But watching him with them it appears he may not always be entirely successful. Animals at the farm are not given names, which is one way of maintaining some distance. Recently, Henry helped tend to a litter of new piglets. Soon it will be time to shear the goats. “I’m looking forward to helping out,” he says.

Though he hasn’t had to declare his major at school yet, Henry is leaning toward Diesel and Mechanical Technology, which incorporates equipment operations, woodworking, repairing small engines and welding, because, “I feel like it’s the most interesting program and it’s the one I know the least about,” he explains. “Here [at the farm] I get experience with plants and animals.” But he also works on—and drives—the farm’s small tractor and has both used and helped repair mowers and tillers.

Norfolk’s sparkling new machinery building was completed in September 2013, along with the animal building. With 45,000 square feet of space, more equipment, more welding booths and more painting bays, students can now tackle more challenging projects, Quinn explains.

Back at the Aggie, students express the same level of enthusiasm for faculty—some of whom are alumni—as they do for their vocational courses. “The teachers are like your best friend instead of a teacher,” Victoria says. “They’ll help you in any way that they can.” “Not just school help, too,” Jenna interjects. “They’ve all been there before, which I think is the coolest part. I’d love to be a teacher here.”

At a time when schools around the country are struggling to maintain passing grades, a high school with happy students, teachers (and animals) that is turning out successful graduates deserves high marks.

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Andrea Pyenson writes about food and travel. Her work has appeared in several print and online publications, including The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Edible Cape Cod, Fine Cooking, msn.com and oneforthetable.com. Her cookbook Grill to Perfection, written with Andy Husbands and Chris Hart, was released in April. Andrea can be reached at apyenson@gmail.com.