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Urban Agrarians

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Although they are sometimes teased for going to "Hayseed High," students at the agricultural school defy the farmer stereotype.

Although they are sometimes teased for going to "Hayseed High," students at the agricultural school defy the farmer stereotype. On this August day, freshmen girls congregating around the produce stand swap compliments on their anything-but-farmlike attire: miniskirts, sundresses, and strappy platform sandals. Their long, ornately painted fingernails are less than ideal for tilling the soil.

The guys are dressed in Chicago Bulls paraphernalia, polo shirts, oversized jeans, baseball caps, and sneakers. They huddle here and there, greeting one another with reserved nods. A few, emulating their pop-culture icons, have painted their nails, too--black, purple, green. The pockets of their low-slung jeans hold chewing gum, not chewing tobacco.

The school's setting is as surprising as its fashion-conscious students. It sits in the midst of Mount Greenwood, a largely white, working-class neighborhood of modest homes and strip malls. Only a few details reveal the farm focus of the otherwise bland, brick school building. There is the school-run produce stand--stocked, staffed, and ready for business--on the front lawn, the 50 acres of farmland out back, and David Foulke, the school's farm manager, tooling around on a John Deere tractor.

"It was hard to picture what a farm in the city would look like before I came," says 27-year-old Foulke. "But it works."

According to Foulke, extreme weather conditions have made this the worst farm season in 20 years, which explains the sorry-looking corn in the field behind the school. The crop, which Foulke says is supposed to be "as high as your eye by the fourth of July," is dry and barely knee-high. But Foulke is quick to point out that a bad growing season, while devastating for real farmers, offers good lessons for students. "They've learned how weather affects morale, prices in stores, everything," he says.

Foulke, who studied agriculture at the University of Illinois, grew up on a 120-acre family farm in central Illinois and hopes one day to return to his rural roots. He acknowledges that he's among the last of his kind. Most children who grow up on farms these days want to leave. "It seems odd," he says. "Fewer farm kids are willing to stay in the business, and here people are banging down the door to get in."

The farm and the adjacent school building were once distinct entities. Although the city has owned the farmland since 1846, it was leased to farmers who sold their produce from a roadside stand. The adjacent school was built in the 1950s to accommodate some 300 students.

In the late 1970s, the near-bankrupt Chicago board of education considered selling the property—known as "Chicago's last farm"—to developers.

In the late 1970s, the near-bankrupt Chicago board of education considered selling the property--known as "Chicago's last farm"--to developers. But Mount Greenwood residents fought to save the beloved land, and in 1985 the board decided to turn the property into Chicago's first agricultural high school.

Years of budget constraints and red tape precluded any major improvement or expansion of the old elementary school facility. As a result, every ounce of space has multiple purposes: Classrooms serve as makeshift lunchrooms and gyms (there's no cafeteria or gymnasium); hallways are transformed into meeting rooms (there's no auditorium); and the school library is crammed into what was once a tiny classroom. Teachers share office space with tilapia-filled aquariums, caged mice, and lawn mowers. Books, equipment, and supplies--which today include a dozen 40-pound bags of dirt and hundreds of poinsettias ready for planting in the greenhouse--are piled everywhere. A labyrinth of portable classrooms spills into the farm field.

New state-of-the-art facilities will double the size of the school and allow enrollment to grow by 150 students.

With no facilities to house them, the school's farm animals are always, as one teacher puts it, "just visiting." On this particular day, a lamb and a few turkeys, chickens, and ducks are touring the school's small, triangle-shaped courtyard, wandering over pavement and around benches.

But all this is about to change. After years of debate with Mount Greenwood over zoning, the school district has finally launched a major renovation and expansion project. New state-of-the-art facilities will double the size of the school and allow enrollment to grow by 150 students. A cafeteria, gymnasium, library, laboratories, and buildings for farm equipment and animals are now in the works.

As the August school day winds down, agricultural-science teacher William Smith, a 10-year Farmer High veteran, begins wrapping up his "Intro to Ag" lecture. "Remember when I asked how many of you were involved in agriculture?" he asks the wide-eyed freshmen. "Well, no one raised his hand. And then I asked how many of you eat, cook, shop, and everyone did. Well, that's being intimately involved in agriculture."

With their Future Farmers of America handbooks open before them, the students take turns naming their career interests.

With their Future Farmers of America handbooks open before them--all students at the school must become FFA members--the students take turns naming their career interests and, with Smith's help, connecting them in some way to agriculture.

"Remember," Smith says, "nearly 20 percent of all jobs in this country are related to agriculture. And only 8 percent of those jobs are actually working on a farm. The rest are in business, science, marketing, and communications."

Several students announce they'd like to become veterinarians.

"Good. Good," Smith says, pointing to the related agricultural fields in his FFA instructor's manual. "Equine science. Small-animal care. Zoology."

Another wants to be a floral designer.

"Floriculture. Great," Smith says.

And another a chemist.

"Environmental science. Food science and technology," Smith says. "There are hundreds of different career opportunities."

The pace breaks, however, when a student proclaims that he'd like to be a composer.

"A musical composer. Hmm," Smith says, trying to think how a composer's work might possibly be linked to agriculture. There is a long pause. "Agricultural services!" he declares, reading from his teacher's guide. "You'd be providing a paid service, a specialty."

But the students aren't buying it. Rumbling erupts in the classroom. Smith knows he's reaching. Laughing, he lets it go, conceding that some of their vocations may lie outside of agriculture.

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