Abby Allen’s summer job requires waking up at an hour most teenagers would consider unthinkable.
Six days a week at 3:30 am, the 16-year-old arrives at the milking barn at Drown’s Dairy Farm in Webster to tend to the morning routine of roughly 90 Holstein, Jersey and Ayrshire cows – a job that makes her heart glow and caters to a passion that runs deep.
This summer, Allen is a farm hand, setting up machines to milk cows in the stalls, dipping and washing their teats in a cleaning solution, and drawing milk to make sure it’s free of mastitis and meets quality standards for market. When that job ends around 8 a.m., she heads to a neighboring farm for haying. Several days a week she returns to Drown’s for another milking at sundown.
“I’ve always been really invested in agriculture since I was little,” said Allen, who is entering her junior year at Merrimack Valley High School in Penacook and her second-year at the Winnisquam Regional Agricultural Education Center in Tilton, which she attends through an inter-district agreement. “I’ve always had a deep connection with anything farm-related.”
“It’s not like working at a grocery store where you know you’re checking out people every day," she said. "It changes every day. It gives you something to look forward to.”
It also fuels Allen’s eventual goal – to be a veterinarian for large animals and livestock – a career choice that blossomed through the education and opportunities available through the Winnisquam Regional Agricultural Center, the state's only standalone high school agricultural education center. Fall Mountain, an ag center linked to the Cheshire Career Center in Keene, will become an independent career and technical education in September, in order to add programs unrelated to agriculture. Agriculture programs remain at high schools in Wolfeboro and Whitefield, according to the New Hampshire Department of Education’s Bureau of Career Development.
The Winnisquam center offers two-year tracks in plant and animal science, and in natural resources, which prepares teens for careers in forestry, wildlife management, aquaculture, logging and landscaping. The agriculture specialty is allied with Future Farmers of America, a national education organization with over 700,000 middle and high school student members in 8,612 chapters nationwide – roughly 34 percent of whom are female.
Allen’s focus on plant and animal science, and the extracurricular classes and competitions she participates in through FFA, give her real-life experience with veterinary procedures such as how to restrain a cat or dog for a life-saving injection into the jugular vein, and how to give farm animals intramuscular injections of medicine. “What I’m learning applies to what I want to focus on when I get out of high school and college. The ag program gives me a lot of opportunities. That’s the biggest thing,” said Allen, whose top scores in FFA tests of skill and knowledge are helping to send her Winnisquam team to the nationals.
For Allen, working with large animals is a lifestyle choice and a hobby sparked when she was younger. In seventh grade, Allen bought her first pair of working steer with $100 she saved from doing chores. She trained them to pull 70 percent of their combined weight through an obstacle course – a popular event at New England agricultural fairs. Since then she’s trained four pair, primarily for famers who use them to haul heavy loads and pull tree stumps out of raw land. The hobby, she said, was fueled by her father’s stories of running and showing his own working steer – which are castrated cattle four years old or younger. It’s a traditional farm activity with modern-day applications – and a dedicated following.
Last year, 9,522 high school students were enrolled in classes at New Hampshire’s 25 technical and agricultural education centers, where they learn specific skills and receive a foundation for working in industries as diverse as bio-tech, plumbing and heating, health care, horticulture, manufacturing and small animal care. The courses not only develop entry-level job skills and qualify students for early employment, they spark interests that become pastimes or careers They also encourage leadership, teamwork and a practical orientation to college and work. For some, classes in agriculture and natural resource fields fuel a passion, honor a family heritage or provide a life-changing goal.
“We definitely have a lot of students who say, literally, the program saved them,” said Maria VanderWoude, the student services coordinator at the Winnisquam Agricultural Center and director of the state’s FFA chapter. “Some have a strong interest. Others don’t. Some just do it because they like it.”
For many it’s an eye-opener. “There’s such a disconnect in the younger generation about where our food comes from, and how it’s processed and grown,” said Allen, who believes taking a crop from seed to harvest is a valuable learning experience for everyone.
Agriculture students use Instagram and online platforms to debunk popular misconceptions about agriculture, which abound on social media, she said. Some people “think every dairy farmer abuses their animals. We’re showing you what’s real, a day in the life.”
Although few agriculture students plan to become farmers, nearly everyone who goes through the center has said they appreciate mastering skills that translate to other careers, such as public speaking, parliamentary procedure, group problem solving and critical thinking – and being required to develop good work habits. These include showing up on time, looking for what needs to be done next, and dressing appropriately for each day’s assignment – which may involve visiting a farm, greenhouse, forest or lumber yard, VanderWoude said.
The goal of ag education – and career and technical education during middle school and high school – is to capture interest and dedication when it can be nurtured and continued. After the ag center, “most will go to college, and while doing that, most will have a job,” said VanderWoude. “They can work for a florist, a logger, a greenhouse or a landscaper, and it’s great that they’re getting a taste of that now.”
At a time when advanced computer and technical skills are prized, especially in a workforce that will be expected to adapt to rapidly changing industry needs, the number of students enrolled in agricultural education has been increasing nationwide, according to FFA and agricultural education associations.
In order to survive or thrive, local farming has typically morphed to being part tourist experience, part commercial production. Starting or running a farm can be a precarious undertaking, said Allen, and it often requires relying on an income from another source.
In the last five years, statewide, agricultural education enrollment has fluctuated, and declined slightly from a peak in 2017, said Eric Frauwirth, administrator of the NH Department of Education’s Bureau of Career Development.
Enrollment at Winnisquam has held steady for roughly 21 years, VanderWoude said. The center serves 80 students, primarily from Winnisquam Regional and Merrimack Valley high schools, but it’s open to any high school sophomore in the state who can arrange for transportation. After several years of sending no one to the ag center, three ninth graders from Franklin – all females – have signed up for plant and animal science classes through student exchange agreements.
This spring, the switch to remote learning because of COVID-19 made agricultural education a challenge, VanderWoude said. Students learned by viewing online videos and working on projects at home. It’s too early to tell whether conventional learning will resume in full this fall; guidelines are expected from Gov. Chris Sununu in July.
“How do you teach someone to use a chain saw? You can show them, but you can’t teach them without putting one in their hands,” VanderWoude said. “I hope we can get back to real-life teaching. From what I hear, it’s been a struggle for everyone.”
She prefers to think in terms of successes. One of the center’s most remarkable stories was a Tilton student who was essentially homeless and on his own during his senior year. Winnisquam teachers made sure he had food and basic living supplies, and one rented him an apartment to live in while he finished high school, VanderWoude said. He went on to study horticulture at SUNY Cobleskill for two years, then transferred to Cornell University, where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in a different field.
Today, now living in Virginia, he is the largest donor to New Hampshire’s chapter of Future Farmers of America.
And to think that the seeds were planted at the Winnisquam ag center.