Nathan Holloway, 14, has spent his boyhood on the family farm in Darlington and plans to spend his high school years laying the groundwork for a future in agriculture.
"I want to live my life in an agricultural business," said Nathan. "My grandparents and my parents grew up on the farm. I want to get a solid background and stay on the farm."
As a member of the first class in Harford County's Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences magnet program, he soon will apply all the practical experience from life on 100-acre livestock farm and orchard to course work. The program makes its debut this semester at North Harford High School in Pylesville.
The 60 freshmen will start high school next week in the company of cows, sheep, horses, alpacas and a pig. They will take classes in barns, pastures, waterways and forests, all while pursuing the traditional core courses required of ninth-graders.
Any doubts about how the course would be received evaporated when the school received 120 applications for the 60 slots. Students' backgrounds vary widely, from those who live on farms to newcomers to the county.
"We received applications from every middle school in the county," said Gregory Murrell, program specialist and leader of a magnet school team of teachers. "One thing this interest shows is that the ag industry is alive and kicking. Very much so."
Nearly half of the applicants live outside North Harford's enrollment area, which is predominantly rural. Harford schools already offer magnet programs in science, engineering, finance and homeland security. Agricultural studies seemed a natural for a county with a large farming industry, officials said.
"These kids won't be locked into classrooms," said Billy Boniface, president of the Harford County Council and a horse farmer. "They will be out onto our farms, seeing agriculture in its environment and they will get a better idea of what is involved in this industry. Area farms will open their doors to these students and be offering internships."
The University of Maryland's Institute of Applied Agriculture has been involved from the beginning.
"This is a heavily science-based program for bright kids who want to use their hands and be outside," said Glori Hyman, acting director of the institute and a Harford resident. "They are part of a whole new wave of interest in hands-on farming. We need these kids to protect our environment and increase the productivity of our farms."
The program's focus on natural resources management and environmental studies shows agriculture's wide reach, she said.
"Farming is not just about growing food and taking care of animals," Hyman said. "This program is giving kids many options, especially in the area of urban agriculture and agribusiness."
The instruction runs the gamut from classrooms and computer labs to livestock barns and woodlands. With 10 acres outside the classrooms, field study will be an everyday occurrence. Pasture and forest surround a stream-fed pond and wetlands and will figure into a student survey of flora and fauna across the entire campus.
Two red barns with skylights, open beams and spacious stalls house livestock. Donated animals arrived with veterinary records, and students will conduct feeding and growth research and will monitor feeding times and amounts.
Students can also delve into horticulture at an established greenhouse, which supplies flowers for wedding receptions and numerous occasions throughout the year. They can delve deeper at an arboretum with 50 native species. They can experience agribusiness in the retail store with its steady supply of fresh flowers and plants and hone pet grooming skills in a fully equipped grooming parlor.
"It is like we have a working farm here," said assistant principal Ed Stevens, a North Harford alumnus who grew up on a farm. "This is a great opportunity for students and the community."
The school is equipped with walk-in freezers, a wet lab with a wide roll-up door to the outdoor areas and an ion chromatograph for soil testing. Teachers have already tested soils on campus and the results match those from a certified lab. The equipment could bring soil testing back to the county and provide a source of revenue for the magnet program, Murrell said.
Nathan Holloway is ready for the school year; he's no stranger to long days on the farm.
"Farming can be a hard job," he said. "This program will help me learn more about it and give me the help I will need in the future. I feel like I really am in the farm system now."
Text NEWS to 70701 to get Baltimore Sun local news text alerts