After lifting several dozen bales onto a hay wagon one hot and humid afternoon last August, Jeffery Bedwell paused and wiped the sweat from his face.
“This reminds me why it's important to get a college education,” he grinned.
At 15, Bedwell was a novice at loading, hauling and stacking hay — but was learning. He and five more high schoolers had volunteered for a unique school project that occurs each summer in northeastern Arkansas.
It happens at the 40-acre farm owned by the Nettleton School District in Jonesboro. The students' grunt-and-sweat work results in hay that produces revenue to help support their educational opportunities. And they pick up some significant pocket change in the process.
Meanwhile, the farm has earned a reputation among hay users as a source for some of the area's highest-quality forage.
The farm, managed by the Nettleton vocational agriculture department, was acquired with school district funds in 1999. Of the 135-140 students enrolled each year, the majority, like Bedwell, have urban addresses.
“Most years, we have no more than a half-dozen students who come from farm families,” explains vo-ag director Doug Ward.
The farm was established as a site for students' vo-ag projects, including hogs, calves, sheep and vegetable gardens.
“We have 20 acres of grass, including a 12-acre bermudagrass hayfield,” Ward says. “Sales of hay and livestock offset about half of the $23,000 the school district budgets annually for farm operations.”
Three hay cuttings are taken from the World Feeder bermudagrass each year. The first cutting, put up in round bales, is reserved primarily for use on the farm, while square bales made from the other two cuttings are sold.
In 2004, a year of abundant rainfall, hay output totaled 45 round bales and 2,165 square bales. Average yearly production is about 3½ tons of hay per acre.
Although participation in haying is voluntary, students are given an incentive to participate. The farm sets aside 25¢ for each bale stacked in the barn. These proceeds are divided equally among those who serve on hay crews.
Nettleton vo-ag students sign up for afternoon work sessions at the farm every week day of the year. On an average afternoon, five to 10 boys and girls report for two hours of work feeding and caring for the animals, cleaning stalls, etc.
Working on a hay crew is above and beyond these duties. It's some of the hardest work students do on the farm, but most participants find that it builds a sense of teamwork and achievement.
“Most of our customers are horse enthusiasts,” says Lance Blythe, co-vo-ag instructor and farm director. “We have a large number of pleasure and performance horses in this area, and the owners want high-quality, nutritious, weed-free hay.”
The farm's listing at www.hayexchange.com produces some customers, but most sales are credited to word-of-mouth references. Students have no direct involvement in hay marketing, although they sometimes refer friends or family members to the farm.
“We occasionally sell hay by the trailer load, but most sales are in quantities of 30-50 bales or less,” Ward says.
When the hay meadow was established, World Feeder was chosen, primarily for its fine stems and high yield. The grass receives manure from the farm lagoon plus about 100 units of nitrogen fertilizer annually.
The meadow is burned in early spring for weed and disease control, and registered herbicides are applied as needed.
“Our bermudagrass is so thick it tends to choke out most competitive plants,” says Ward.
Some of Nettleton's vo-ag students go on to pursue ag majors at the university level. Lance Blythe is an example. Will Jeffery Bedwell be another?
Now a sophomore, he's already had vo-ag livestock projects for three years, and he's planning to get a college degree with a major in ag education.
One thing is clear: Bedwell's enthusiasm for agriculture wasn't dampened by the sweat and hard work of haying on that hot Arkansas afternoon last August.