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Fayette develops ag school

On the north side of Leestown Road, just outside Lexington, goldenrod, ironweed and Queen Anne's lace grow lush and waist-high as far as the eye can see, and the larger residents include groundhogs, deer and wild ducks.

It's not a site you'd normally think of as a spot for a new school, but that's what it is.

Welcome to the Fayette County Public Schools' new Locust Trace Agriscience Farm.

Right now, the farm exists in name only. But school district officials say that in the coming months Locust Trace will become a place where Fayette County Schools students who are interested in careers related to agriculture can come to learn about horticulture, veterinary science, equine science, cattle and sheep raising, food production and other related subjects, while earning credit toward college.

The site will be a school. But officials say Locust Trace also will be a working farm with barns, pastures, orchards, horses, cattle and room for a community garden. Students will do much of the work themselves while they learn.

The farm will be green environmentally, as well as in color. Plans call for using solar panels to capture electricity, drilling wells to tap on-site water sources, and a minimal overall "footprint." To increase the learning potential, students would be involved in planning much of that, officials say.

"We have dreamed of doing something like this for a long time, but we simply never had the land to do it with," Fayette Schools Superintendent Stu Silberman said.

All that changed earlier this year when the federal government gave the school system 82 acres of open land on the north side Leestown Road. The Fayette County Board of Education last Monday night officially adopted Locust Trace Agriscience Farm as the site's name, after a grove of locust trees at one corner of the property.

The federal government also gave the Urban County Government 10 adjacent acres of land, which will be used for a new fire station, the mayor's office says. Both parcels, which the federal government had declared to be surplus, were part of the property of Lexington's Federal Correctional Institution.

"When the chance came along to get land from the federal government for free, we jumped to take advantage of it," Silberman said. "I'm really excited about what it can mean for our kids."

Planning for the new agriscience farm is barely under way. But school district officials said they hope to start construction next spring on the first phase — a horse barn with an attached classroom building. Before that, a road entrance must be constructed. Later, there will be another classroom and a barn for livestock, plus a show ring where students can work with horses and cattle. Officials want to keep construction at a minimum, leaving as much open land as possible.

"We feel like we could serve about 300 students per year, and be fully operational in three years," said James Hardin, the county schools' coordinator of career and technical education.

The land won't sit idle until then. The plan is to have students on the farm this fall for such things as field trips in which students could take soil samples, learn native plants or collect water samples from the farm's small stream for analysis, Hardin said. He also wants to involve students in working with architects to plan the locations for barns, solar panels and other facilities.

"We have 82 acres of absolutely raw, virgin land, with no roads, no utilities, no easements," Hardin said. "The possibilities are unlimited."

Hardin said the school system has identified up to 700 students at the elementary and middle school levels who would be interested in programs to be offered at Locust Trace.

A major thrust in education today is to steer students toward careers in math, science and technology. But Debbie Anderson, director of career and technical education for the Kentucky Department Department of Education, said many Kentucky students today are still interested in careers related to agriculture, though not necessarily in working on the farm. Fields of interest range from horticulture to equine science, she said.

"Agriculture is more than just learning about raising cattle and picking beans," Anderson said. "It's more about the whole aspect of how agriculture affects everyone, whether you live in the middle of a city or on a farm."

Alyss Zimmerman and Taryn Bunch, seniors in the Fayette County schools, typify that interest. Alyss plans to study large animal science at Eastern Kentucky University next year. Taryn wants to study hippotherapy, which uses horses' movements as a treatment for people with physical disabilities.

The girls, full-time students at Eastside Technical Institute, visited Locust Trace for the first time Friday and said their only disappointment is that they will graduate before the farm gets in to full operation.

Agriculture teacher Carrie Davis, who will be leading many of the classes at Locust Trace, said that having a real farm will allow the school district to greatly expand its offerings for students.

"It will allow us to give kids the skills they need to get into the agriculture industry, whether it's their career, their post-secondary education, their hobby or their passion," she said.

"It's also a way to put them back in touch with the natural world, versus them just going to the store never thinking where everything on the shelf is coming from. It kind of ties the web back together."

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