MACON – At the moment, the only visible evidence of the upcoming agriculture building at Meridian High School is an empty space and a sign.
However, thanks to private donors and a $15,000 boost on Monday from agricultural cooperative Evergreen FS, the school district has raised $540,000 of its $816,000 goal toward making that building a reality.
“We're cashing that baby,” said Duane Noland, a member of the Meridian Ag Foundation, the group spearheading the fundraising effort, when he saw the giant ceremonial check. “We're going to run that through the Niantic bank. That's beautiful.”
Meridian was the last Macon County school to get an agriculture program and an FFA chapter, Noland said. Last year was the first year, with new teacher Jerry Brockett. About 25 percent of Meridian's 300 students enrolled for the classes, which included introduction to agriculture, plant and animal science, and agri-business courses. With the new building, there will be space for a shop, where students can get hands-on instruction in welding, carpentry, mechanics and electricity; a classroom; and a greenhouse.
The hope is to have bid documents ready in the next few weeks, and to break ground in the fall, with a goal of having the building complete and ready to use in time for the 2021-22 school year, Noland said.
“In the future, we're offering a horticulture class to prep for greenhouse management and production sorts of things,” Brockett said. “And with it right here next to the middle school, we might have some middle school ag classes in the future.”
An endowment was left to the school by Del and Evelyn Carroll which provides Meridian students with two years of tuition to Richland Community College. About half of Meridian graduates already take advantage of that, and the hope is that Richland's ag program will be a destination for the ag students who find their calling in the ag classes at the school.
Jeff Smithers, chairman of Richland's agriculture department and a member of the Meridian Ag Foundation board, said students have several choices when studying ag at the college.
“Students can come to Richland and get an associate in arts or associate in science and it's articulated with four-year institutions that offer ag degrees,” he said. “The other option is a two-year degree in agronomy or agriculture business or horticulture.”
He came to Richland to build the program and now is a good time for that, he said, because with Macon County schools offering ag programs to high school students, it's an easy transition to Richland to further their studies.
Evergreen donated seed for a hay field at Meridian, which provided education for students in the cultivation and baling of hay this year, and the school also has a garden with sweet corn, gourds, squash and pumpkins. Students worked in that garden, planting and cultivating, and the pumpkin crop will provide community families with jack-o-lanterns this fall.
“In the past, we used to have ag classes that we shared with Central A&M, then we kind of got away from that,” said high school Principal Eric Hurelbrink. “As we did the building project, it was never in that project. Once we finished that, this was the last piece of the puzzle for us curriculum-wise for what we were offering to our kids. So when the Foundation came along, it was a chance to really add this into our curriculum and to provide the space they need to make it a successful program.”
Because the funding wasn't available to provide the building and program, Noland said, area farmers with ties to the district formed the Foundation to raise the funds privately. None of it comes from taxes or bonds.
“It comes from the goodwill of 175 donors to date, including Evergreen FS,” he said.