Ag officials plant seed for OHS Learning Farm
A team of ag instructors and advisors gives a presentation of their “dream” to the members of the Steele County Agricultural Society: The OHS Learning Farm. Standing from left are David Thamert, an ag banker with Profinium; Mike Dinse, industrial tech teacher at OHS; Liz Tinaglia and Jamie Gray, both ag instructors at OHS. In the front is Steele County Free Fair Manager Scott Kozelka. Staff photo by Kay Fate
It seemed only fitting for the first seed of a dream to be planted at a meeting of the Steele County Agricultural Society Board of Directors.
A team of ag and industrial tech instructors, farmers, and ag advisors introduced the board to their vision: the OHS Learning Farm.
“With the opportunity of a new high school being built, we wanted to know what we could do to further advance our agriculture program in the county,” said Mitch Dinse, who teaches industrial tech at Owatonna High School.
“We want to give students that real-world experience, get them up and out of the classroom and actually see what’s being taught – then applying it to a farmsite,” he said.
The main goal is agricultural promotion, and with the help of a task force, the project is in Phase 1, which Jeanne Pichner said is simple: “Sharing our dream.”
It’s actually more than that and has been set in motion.
The Owatonna School District owns 33 acres of land near Turtle Creek Nursery on the east side of Owatonna. Purchased to someday be the site of a school, it has been cash-rented to a farmer since.
“We’ve met with school officials … who are going to allow the Owatonna ag department to wrap that into their curriculum and treat it as an outdoor lab,” said David Thamert, an OHS grad and ag banker.
Lucas Arndt, who farms southeast of Owatonna, will help farm the land.
His family will plant 14 varieties of soybeans there this spring, donating all the input.
When classes start in the fall, Arndt said, the students can be involved in counting pods, looking at root systems, testing soil, “and analyzing what happens in the agronomic world of farming.”
Money from that first crop will be used to hire a consulting service and move the project forward with feasibility studies and other needs.
That’s because the next phase is to add a “farm lab building” that would incorporate livestock, plants, crops, and more.
It would be student-led, said Jamie Gray, an ag instructor at OHS who spoke about the planned pathways and courses to best educate the students.
“We’re developing a more robust curriculum,” she said, “trying to increase the rigor and give these kids experiences in the classroom so that by the time they’re juniors and seniors, they can be out on the farm – making decisions, running the facility” with the guidance of area experts.
While a location near the high school would be ideal for the project, the group is keeping its options open.
“We’re not here to ask for money,” Arndt said, drawing laughs, “but in the planning, we’re also looking at other locations,” including a suggestion to partner with the Steele County Free Fair.
“That’s the ask to the fair board tonight,” he said, possibly “building a facility on the fairgrounds, really not anything more than that. We’d love to partner – through 4-H, the community – and make it a facility that’s used every day of the year, not just during the fair. And as a task force, hopefully raise enough funds to cover the cost of the building – or a majority of it, anyway.”
The new building “that can benefit the fair in some way,” he said, “maybe replacing a barn that’s already here.”
It would be used by the fair during its annual event in August, and by the school and community the rest of the year.
“We know the building and facilities will have to come through some sort of fundraising and partnerships with ag businesses and non-profits,” Arndt said.
The ideal building would include multiple classrooms/labs, restrooms, locker room, certified kitchen, production greenhouse and livestock pavilion.
Outside space would also be needed for livestock pens.
Liz Tinaglia, an OHS ag instructor and FFA advisor, emphasized the facility would be “more an educational farm than a production farm.”
She envisions it as a site to host a variety of events for both the school district and the community.
Fair Manager Scott Kozelka reminded the directors that “the biggest thing we run into as a fair board is youth education. I think that’s really important – it’s our job as the fair to continue that education.”
Director Gene Fisher agreed.
“I think it’s extremely important to keep 4-H involved,” he said. “Our fair was based on the 4-H idea, so I think that’s important.”
“We do, too,” Gray said. “We’re all past 4-H and FFA members; that’s why we’re standing here. We understand that importance, and we’re not going to take that away. It’s not going to just be the FFA kids from the high school working on this.”
Though an educational farm isn’t a new concept, this would be the first of its kind in Minnesota.
“We’d be open to anything,” Gray said, “but we need a building. We need new technology. We want to showcase all of the new parts of ag and help get rid of some of the misconceptions that are out there.”
Non-traditional agriculture – wildlife and natural resources – would also be a focus.
“It’s extremely early in the process,” Thamert said, “but everyone in the ag industry we’ve talked to is interested.”