BELLE PLAINE, Minn. – An acreage purchased for school expansion is providing real world learning opportunities for students in the Belle Plaine School District.
Purchased by the district some time ago, the 71-acre parcel was rented out to a farmer. But because the land is inside the city limits and the school district wasn’t using it for education, almost all of the farm rent went to pay property taxes.
The school board decided to turn the farm parcel over to the Belle Plaine Ag Department.
In 2020, the Ag Education and Research Farm was born.
The first goal is to get students excited about farming the land, said Bruce Mathiowetz, Belle Plaine School agriculture teacher.
The school district has about 125 students per grade. At its current census and rate of growth, the school board doesn’t have plans to build at this time.
By creating the Research Farm, the school no longer pays property taxes. The school doesn’t charge the ag department for land rent either.
School Board President Terry Kahle works at Ag Partners Cooperative, which has provided as much assistance with the Research Farm as possible. In the spring of 2020, the ag department paid for soil grid-sampling and testing. The co-op donated some of the fertilizer and application costs.
When it was time to plant in the spring of 2020, Belle Plaine FFA Alumni organized farmers to come in and share their equipment and expertise with the students. The school received four corn hybrids for free – enough to plant about 40 acres. They purchased wheat seed for the other half of the field.
“Between all of that, our expenses were fairly minimal, and with the amount of rain we received on the sand last year, we did fairly well,” Mathiowetz said. Corn averaged about 185 bushels per acre, while the wheat was about 40 bushels per acre.
Students throughout the school district are taking ownership for the farmland, he added. The FFA Chapter has a drone they’ve used to fly over the field. Participants in a Summer Ag Program last year did some crop scouting and studied the various stages of crop development.
Students rode in the combine in the fall, and took video from the combine cab, the weigh wagon, and the truck cab.
During the 2020-21 school year, seven graders have learned about plant breeding and how hybrid crosses happen. The ninth graders have worked on commodity marketing with information garnered from the farmland.
Since the field is directly across from an elementary school, students there will have an opportunity to follow along this spring with planting.
“We’re trying to reach a little bit of everybody. Soil quality is a big buzzword. If I had all the time in the world and all of the equipment, the farm would be carved up into a grid of different varieties along with different fertilizers and then the kids would go out and do the research,” he said.
Through this experience, the Belle Plaine School District has taken textbook agriculture and applied it to actual farming.
“It’s exciting for the students, to give them a different perspective,” Mathiowetz said.