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Cows and Classwork: An Animal Science Teacher Reflects on a Half Century of Educating Kids

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TIM SANTIMORE
  • Tim Santimore

A gallon of gas sold for 30 cents, a stamp cost a nickel and Vermont had 9,247 farms in 1964, when James Messier began teaching as the sole agricultural instructor at Highgate Elementary and High School. Much has changed in Vermont agriculture since then — the number of farms has dropped to 7,300 — but Messier has been a constant presence. The septuagenarian, who lives in the same Franklin farmhouse where his family moved when he was less than a year old, still works with Vermont youngsters passionate about pursuing a hands-on career in agriculture.

Messier, 78, now teaches part-time at Missisquoi Valley Union Middle/High School. On a Tuesday morning in June, as he wrapped up another school year, Messier made plans to teach an advanced class in the fall, at some of his students' request. The teenagers — all young women — have professional aspirations ranging from an artificial inseminator technician to working with goats.

Later that morning, his Animal Science II high school students settled into their desks. Messier, a soft-spoken man who limps due to a sore knee, displayed an easy command of the classroom. He instructed one boy to remove his cap.

"Most of the time, the students are pretty good," Messier said. "Once in a while, their mouths get out of control. I don't like to repeat myself. Sometimes I do come down hard."

Messier insists on discipline for good reasons. He informed the students that yesterday's class left the school's pregnant donkey, Esther, in a pen without water. Because the weather was cool and overcast, the donkey was OK, but that day's highs were expected to be in the 80s. "That can't happen again," he said.

After changing into muck boots, Messier's students headed out to the barn. They care for two beef steers, two heifers, two hogs, a miniature horse, the pregnant donkey and Messier's riding horse; 30 layers roost in the henhouse. Though other schools have chickens, MVU is believed to be one of only two schools in the state to have such a wide range of livestock on site, according to the Vermont Agency of Education.

Students are assigned animals to tend and stalls to clean. The pairings change periodically, as some animals head to market to be slaughtered, and others arrive. Last winter, the town of Highgate loaned the program its swan — a particularly high-maintenance bird that favored romaine lettuce and hated his antibiotics.

Messier and his students formed Thunderbird Meat Co-op (named for the school mascot) to sell the meat the program produces. MVU buys Thunderbird ground beef for its school lunch program. Additional pork and beef are sold to the public. MVU's family and consumer science class and the school staff buy the program's eggs. In the summer, eggs are donated to local food shelves and to Martha's Kitchen, a St. Albans nonprofit that provides free meals.

Anson Tebbetts, Vermont's secretary of agriculture, food and markets, sampled a Thunderbird burger when he visited MVU for its annual end-of-year barbecue in May.

The program provides "a wonderful education," he said later in an email. "From start to finish, the students are involved in a business. They raise and feed the animals. They have the animals processed. They are also learning about marketing their product and getting it distributed. These are not easy tasks, but they are learning all aspects of agriculture."

The surrounding community — where working farms occupy much of the land — contributes significantly to the program. Farmers loan animals to the school for students to raise, then return. Montgomery's Breezy Acres Farm gave the program four hogs. The students raised three and sent them to market, and returned the fourth to the farm after it was impregnated. Cargill Animal Nutrition, with a branch in Swanton, donates feed. Leader Evaporator, a major manufacturer of sugaring equipment in Swanton, takes student interns, as do local farms. The program hays 20 acres at Highgate Elementary School for the animals' use.

During the summer, most animals return to their home farms or go to the Tyler Place Family Resort's petting zoo in Highgate Springs. The laying hens and beef animals remain at the school, where Messier's wife, Ronna, tends to them in her role as agricultural activities director.

Some students taking agricultural classes at MVU live on farms, others in towns. Many hold paying farm jobs. In the barnyard, the teens spoke knowledgeably about the animals and exuded confidence in their hands-on work. Trinity Chevalier, who was paired this winter with the swan, described herself as "more of a goat person." Journi Luten, laughing at a stubborn animal, said, "You can tell this is not my cow." She's especially gentle with the animals, and her particular passion is tending the calves. "Everything about the cows is interesting," she said.

A support staff member remarked that farm work levels out socioeconomic differences between the students. They're all friends, she said, and "they treat each other as equals."

Before the students left the barnyard to return to the classroom, Messier asked if the animals were watered, cleaned, bedded and fed. The students confirmed they were.

In the classroom, Messier directed students to "listen up." They returned to a complex problem about researching a seed mixture to sow on the pasture and calculating proportions. "These are decisions farmers have to make every day," Messier told the class.

That sentence encapsulates Messier's educational approach — teaching students to make real-world decisions based on experience.

Messier became an educator after graduating from the University of Vermont and working briefly as a dairy farmer. He turned to teaching for the affordability of health insurance. In 1970, Highgate's high school was consolidated into Missisquoi Valley Union Middle/High School. Highgate's high school agricultural program moved to MVU four years later; Messier has worked there ever since.

Today, around 200 middle and high schoolers take classes in MVU's Agricultural Science and Technology Department, which offers hands-on training in sugaring, forestry, aquaculture, raising garden plants in a greenhouse, and tending blueberries, apples and winter-hardy kiwi. Because much of farming relies on machinery, the department teaches mechanics and welding as well. Messier's animal science classes cover animal care, ranging from grooming manes to calculating antibiotic doses to marketing meat.

James Messier on his riding horse - TIM SANTIMORE
  • Tim Santimore
  • James Messier on his riding horse

In the 1970s, Messier helped write the state curriculum for what was then called agricultural and livestock production. In 2008, he was granted an honorary degree from the Future Farmers of America. In 2015, Messier became the only Vermonter to receive the organization's prestigious National VIP Award.

Thousands of students have passed through Messier's classroom in his more than 50 years on the job. Matt Choiniere, who graduated from MVU in 2013, said he gained skills he uses nearly every day as a farmer in the two mechanics classes he took from Messier. "The mechanical understanding I have taken away from my classes and welding skills he taught me have proven to be invaluable," Choiniere said.

He now works at his family's organic farm, Choiniere Family Farm, alongside his father, Guy, who is also a former student of Messier's — and a member of the MVU program's advisory board. Said the younger Choiniere of their former instructor: "Not only was he a great teacher, he was also a great role model."

Messier spoke with Kids VT about what's changed over his long teaching career.

Kids VT: What was teaching like when you began in 1964?

James Messier: There was no specialization back then. No curriculum either. What happened was instructors would visit families and kids during the summer and ask, "What do you want to learn next year?" So that became your curriculum. You had resource materials that would support what students wanted to learn. There was no such thing as programmed curriculum. Now you can buy a curriculum, and the teacher doesn't have to do anything except open it up ... We had to write everything out by hand and use a mimeograph machine. The first mimeograph machine wasn't even electric. You had to hand-crank it.

KVT: What else has changed?

JM: Back when I first started, there were ag programs in many schools scattered all through the state. Now they bus kids to tech programs. That's when things really changed. A lot of the individual school programs went out when students went to the tech centers ... Another thing that's changed — in this last class, there were six girls and three boys. [The program was originally nearly all boys.] Also what's changed is that back when I first started, 90 to 100 percent of the kids were from a farm. Now it may be 50-50. It may be less than 50-50.

KVT: Do you notice changes in families from the 1960s to today?

JM: People are super concerned about liability, as they should be. Years ago, on field trips, kids would go up in silos and check things out. I wouldn't let kids do that for anything in the world today. In some cases, parent support was stronger when I started than the average situation is today. If you keep telling somebody that they never do anything wrong, when they do things wrong — and that happens with everybody — that doesn't prepare them for the real world. You don't get through this world without making a mistake.

KVT: What else is different for students now?

JM: Higher education is a lot more expensive. So students who go on to higher ed come out with a bachelor of arts or sciences and have no career in mind. You going to flip hamburgers at McDonald's to pay off a 150K college fee? We have schools that are still pushing for kids to go to a four-year college.

KVT: Why do you think that is?

JM: There's a lot of negative press that isn't deserved, but guidance counselors read it, or administrators read it, and think, What the heck, no sense in supporting the ag program because ag is on its way out. Excuse me, but they have no idea of the working world. Ag is not going to be on its way out in Vermont.

KVT: Do students ever have difficulty with animals going to slaughter?

JM: They know when the program starts what's going to happen. Some take it better than others. Sometimes it's harder for students who have hogs for a project. Their project gets loaded up on a trailer and disappears before the semester ends. They take it well; they understand.

KVT: Do you have a particular student success story you'd like to share?

JM: There's not one success story. I'm really proud of students who we have trained and could succeed in employment without going to a four-year or technical college ... I have six or seven welders at Leader Evaporator. They didn't go beyond this welding program. They're making $15 to $18 dollars an hour.

KVT: Where else do some of your students work after they graduate?

JM: A former student of mine — and his son, who was a student of mine — have a diversified ag farm and they're organic ... But his milk, rather than bringing $17 a hundred (farmers are paid for milk by weight), it's $38 a hundred. Right next to him is a conventional farmer; he gets $17 a hundred. That's why we talk about diversified ag here. I have a former student who milks goats now. He used to milk cows. He was a mechanic when he was here, and he welded his own milking parlor. He's getting $34 or $37 per hundred for his milk. So, agriculture is changing. Some farmers are finding it easier to stay small and diversify. Diversified ag is the reason we have sheep and pigs and goats, dairy and cattle and horses and beef [in the program at MVU].

KVT: Can you describe your role as an educator?

JM: The bottom line is that the program is for the kids, not me. The kids make the decisions about their meat sales, how we're going to market our program, and so on. I'm just a facilitator.

KVT: What do you think is most important for students to learn?

JM: I like to think that I don't just teach subject matter. I think ethics, responsibility and how to get along with others are personal skills kids can use no matter what they do. Sometimes that's just as important as a particular skill. I also try not to take myself too seriously.

KVT: You've been teaching for more than 50 years. Any plans to retire?

JM: I would like to retire and get out of here before people have to bring me in with a wheelchair. But not yet.

Interested in meeting Missisquoi Valley's Animal Science students and the livestock they care for?

Visit them at Franklin County Field Days, August 2-5, in Highgate. MVU's Future Farmers of America operates the ice cream booth, provides animals for the petting zoo and showcases their work in educational exhibits.

MVU students' Thunderbird Meat Co-op's pork ranges from $4 to $4.75 per pound; beef is $5 to $14 per pound. To order, contact James Messier at jmessier@fnwsu.org. Then grill a summertime feast with locally raised meat, while supporting youth in agriculture.


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