Lexington high school senior Shanel Dunn, 17, was just a mite nervous one afternoon last week, concentrating hard on completing a tricky and demanding class exercise.
Her assignment: maneuver a big blue New Holland farm tractor into a cramped outdoor course marked off with wooden stakes, then steer it out again without knocking over any stakes.
Slowly, but with a sure hand, Shanel drove the big tractor through the course and brought it to a stop, leaving every stake standing. Then she stepped down to exchange triumphant high fives with her classmates.
"It's pretty cool," she said. "Until this week, I'd never even been on a tractor."
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Shanel is taking a class called ag power mechanics. It's not your typical class— or at your typical school.
Shanel is one of about 200 students now attending Fayette County Public Schools' new $18 million Locust Trace AgriScience Farm, which opened last month off Newtown Pike.
Locust Trace is a real school, with a classroom building that offers a variety of courses for students interested in agriculture-related careers.
But it's also a full-fledged farm, with wooden fences, pastures ready for livestock that will be arriving next month, a working veterinary clinic, and an indoor arena and stables for livestock shows and similar events. Eventually, there will be orchards, gardens and vineyards, which students will operate as part of their studies.
Locust Trace also is the most environmentally advanced facility the school district has ever built. Among other things, it boasts environmentally friendly paving to limit rainwater runoff, deep wells to supplement water needs, the country's third-largest solar-thermal array to help heat buildings, a photo-voltaic system to generate the farm's own electricity from sunlight, and artificial wetlands that will clean the facility's wastewater naturally and then gradually release it underground.
Serious planning for the facility began in 2009, when the federal government gave the district 80 acres of land.
Joe Norman, who is principal at Locust Trace, had been dreaming for years of having just such a place where Fayette County students could come to learn the basics needed to help prepare them to become veterinarians, farm managers, agriculture teachers or take on other careers in agriculture.
"Now, being out here and watching the kids come in here every day so excited to be here ... it's really like seeing a dream come true," Norman said. "I'm tickled to death."
Classes at Locust Trace include plant and land science, environmental science and biotechnology, equine and veterinary science, small and large animal science, and ag power mechanics. There also are traditional academic classes.
Students spend about half their school day at Locust Trace, bused to the facility from their respective high schools. They might do classroom work one minute, then hike through Locust Trace's fields the next, identifying native Kentucky plants and determining whether they're beneficial, toxic or both.
While some of the students come from families with backgrounds in agriculture, many have never had hands-on experience on a farm, officials say.
Shanel is among the latter. Her family has no background in farming, but Shanel loves animals and being outdoors, and she wants to learn how to work on tractors and other equipment.
Much like Shanel, Autry Graham had never been exposed to farm life. But she's always loved horses and wants a career in the equine business. When Autry, 17, heard about plans for Locust Trace last year, she quickly applied. Now, when she isn't studying here, one of her duties is helping lead visitors on tours around the agriscience farm.
"People are always amazed when they see it," she said. "I love going to school here. I think it's incredible that we have a place like this that is an ag magnet school."
It's equally amazing for Camila Modica, 18, whose interest in Locust Trace grew from her father's work as a horse trainer. She wants to be a trainer or a veterinarian specializing in livestock and horses.
Watching students like Camila, Autry and Shanel progress is especially rewarding for Carrie Davis, who teaches equine and veterinary science at Locust Trace. Davis, who previously taught agriculture at Fayette County's Eastside Technical Center, spent much of the past two years helping plan Locust Trace. She says it has been well worth all the work and waiting.
"When you walk around and look at the farm today, it's hard to believe that it all came to fruition," she said. "Having a place like this is unique; it's precious; it's a golden opportunity for our kids.
"Every day you come to work here is like walking into a miracle."