Agriculture in Their Hands

Local high-school farm is elaborate by design
By: Margaret Butler

Teachers Ashley Gilbert and Chan Barber at Polk County School’s 10-acre educational farm.
Photo by Margaret Butler

When one thinks of the standard high-school curriculum, math, science, literature, or language arts come to mind. Few people consider agriculture as a core course of study. But at Polk County High School, agriculture and animal science courses are pivotal. Two teachers, Ashley Gilbert and Chan Barber, teach more than 75 types of Ag-related classes a year, including  animal science; Ag-mechanics courses (welding, electrical, woodworking, painting, tools, etc.); and horticulture.

Here, there’s a large demand. “Over 50% of the student body enrolls in at least one Ag class during their time in high school,” Gilbert says. The rural foothills county sits in the Isothermal Belt, which has a longer growing season; agriculture is a deep part of Polk County’s heritage and is making a comeback with the younger generation. 

The break from traditional academics is as hands-on as it gets. Students medicate, tag, and tend the school’s resident goats, cattle, and other animals. And the process can be particularly thorough: For instance, some students raise broiler chickens, then go on to process them and prepare them for market. 

Animal science is a key part of the agricultural curriculum.
Photo by Margaret Butler

Beyond animal care, students learn about pest management, farm-vehicle operation and maintenance, and harvesting on-campus crops, including autumn’s apples and muscadine grapes. 

“There are many high-school farms, but none as elaborate or expansive as Polk’s,” says Gilbert. “All we have to do is walk straight out of the classroom and onto the farm. We’re really lucky.” It’s 10 acres — practically unheard of for high-school farms — with three rotational pastures, an animal-science barn, an Ag-mechanics barn, a working greenhouse, and an outdoor classroom space. 

Beyond the hands-on classes, the school boasts more than 200 student members of the Future Farmers of America (FFA) National Organization. The Ag department hosts social events, visits from local Farm Bureau representatives, and Ag awareness days at Polk Middle.

Photo by Margaret Butler

The program has grown significantly over the years, thanks to the local community. “We’re the only high school in the county, so we get a lot of support. We wouldn’t be where we are without them,” Gilbert says. Along with community donations, the school receives grant money and state CTE (Career and Technical Education) funding to help equip it with large agriculture equipment. (A new cattle chute and a working beehive are slated for spring.)

But beyond the heavy-duty equipment and variety of courses, Gilbert and Barber’s passion for farming inspires students. “It’s really important for us to educate students about agriculture,” says Gilbert. “Even if they don’t go into agriculture, we want them to have an awareness about where food comes from, and an appreciation for the work involved.”

NC Foothills Farm Tour, Fall Educational Edition

The Polk County School Farm is one of four stops on the NC Foothills Farm Tour happening Saturday, Oct. 15. The autumn tour features destinations in Polk and Rutherford counties and will be an “educationally intensive session” geared to small groups. Morning and afternoon tours are available and times vary per farm. For ticket updates, visit (also @ncfoothillsfarmtour on Facebook and Instagram).

The Polk County School Farm 

Working 10-acre farm on the campus of the county’s only high school (see story). Find more information at “Polk County FFA” on Facebook. The school farm is located at 1681 NC-108, in Columbus, 828-894-2525.

Parker-Binns Vineyard

This winery aims to revive the area’s viticultural history. It also includes an on-site restaurant, The Burger Barn. 2275 Whiteside Road, Mill Spring, 828-894-0154,  

Cherry Mountain Farm

Cherry Mountain Farm is a general store specializing in Case knives and a popular agritourism stop where visitors can see the resident Angora mohair goats. 3946 US-64, Rutherfordton, 954-410-2892, 

Belflower Farm

Belflower Farm is a family operation in rural Rutherford County that raises cattle and sheep and sells natural lamb and beef products for market. Belwether also specializes in farm infrastructure and implements stream restoration and other water-management services. 452 Luckadoo Road, Bostic, 828-980-5715 and 704-466-2282,

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