If your lettuce wasn’t an enticing shade of green this summer, maybe the problem is you weren’t fertilizing with fish poop.
The rows of lettuce at the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences were so appealing, it was all I could do not to tear off a leaf and pop it into my mouth. That seemed rude, so instead I fled over to peer into the murky depths of one of the four big tanks where tilapia swim, generating their contribution to agronomy, their soiled water used to water the plants. The fish themselves eventually are fried at a school party.
The Chicagoland Food & Beverage Network was holding a symposium at the school Monday about the city’s role in food and agricultural education, and invited me.
While bad-mouthing Chicago Public Schools is a constant theme in both public life and journalism, and not without reason, the system’s pervasive problems have a way of obscuring gems like Chicago Ag, as students call it.
The school sits on 72 acres in the Mount Greenwood neighborhood, half of which is planted with crops. Last summer the school raised sunflowers, zucchini, squash, tomatoes, pumpkins, both orange and pink (for breast cancer awareness), Swiss chard, kohlrabi, broccoli, peppers, watermelon, cucumbers, mustard greens, cabbage, onions, okra and soybeans.
Despite the verdure, the school still has all the aspects you’d expect: a football team, a mascot — the Cyclones, which can be challenging. “You ever try to dress up as a cyclone?” one student asked. It also has tractors, which the students operate. Safety is an important part of the curriculum.
“Agriculture is the most dangerous industry in the country,” said Max Williquette, who teaches agricultural mechanics and technology.
There are also animals: bees, goats, turkeys — the star of the meal students will prepare and serve to seniors on Thanksgiving — plus about 30 chickens in two groups, with a few segregated from the main flock.
“The reason she and the chicks are alone is because Chickaletta, halfway through last year, got ill and we had to separate her,” said tour guide Joan Sanford, 17. “Due to chickens having — mind the pun — a very strict pecking order, we could not re-introduce her into the flock because they would kill her.”
Not the Disney gloss on animals, but then that’s part of what actually being around them teaches. The school has a cannulated cow, or, as a helpful hand-drawn green sign explains, “a cow with a passageway connecting the cow’s stomach with the outside.”
“It’s a great learning tool,” said Sanford.
If you think a curriculum that can involve shoveling manure and identifying off flavors in milk is a hard sell to Chicago teens, guess again. A magnet school, every year Chicago Ag gets around 3,000 applications for 180 spots in its freshman class.
The panel conversation included Andrea Zopp, the new president and CEO of World Business Chicago, and Juan Salgado, chancellor of City Colleges Chicago. They emphasized how important agriculture, food service and production is to the city economy.
“One of the fastest growing parts of the economy is food and beverage,” Zopp said, noting the presence of Conagra Brands and McDonald’s Corp., and new entities such as The Hatchery, a food company incubator being built in East Garfield Park.
“Agriculture is science,” said Kimberlee Kidwell, dean at the University of Illinois College of Agriculture, Consumer and Environmental Science. “It’s measurement. It’s math.”
Yes, going to school here can require some explaining to kids from other schools.
“They don’t know what to say,” said Jazzmin Sharp, 16, who is studying food science. “They think we’re farmers.”
Many hope to be farmers. Or food scientists. Or veterinarians. Samantha Williamson, 16, plans to study agricultural law.
“Fighting for farmers’ rights,” she explained.
A number of students decided to go to Chicago Ag after going on tours there when they were younger.
“That’s when I fell in love with the school,” said Sanford, 17, who lives nearby.
Or because of family connections.
“My brother went here,” said Barbara Gochee, 17. “When I came here to pick him up, I’d go in. I love flowers, horticulture. Really excited for that.”
Jonathan Poole, 18, watched his older siblings attend.
“I knew this school was really unique,” he said. “Just seeing the amount of opportunities they got. It inspired me.”