CAZENOVIA — Randi Osborne became an agriculture teacher in what she describes as a “non-traditional way.” After graduating from Weston High School, she began studying agriculture education at UW-River Falls, but found she was awfully shy and switched to animal science. She dairy farmed for a few years following, but realized she still hadn’t found her true calling.
It was when she was working at a biotech company that it dawned on her — she really did want to be an agriculture teacher all along. So she got her teaching license, went back to school and as luck would have it, returned to Weston High School to become the district’s agriculture teacher.
“This is my passion,” Osborne said.
During the 2012-2013 school year, Osborne brought a small Jersey calf and a few chickens to school for students to interact with for their animal science class. The animals were such a hit with the students that the class wanted to expand the school farm so that everyone could learn about agriculture — and with the district sitting on 68 acres, there was space to do so.
“We tossed around a bunch of ideas and at that time, I saw an article on dairy sheep,” Osborne said. “They were a lot safer than cattle so I took the idea to the school board.”
With their blessing, the students began researching dairy sheep — planning ahead for their housing and feeding needs — and designing a barn, milking parlor and milk house. Osborne’s husband, Tim, and several community members helped the students construct the barn, setting posts and trusses, adding girders and purlins, and cutting and fastening steel. Fencing was also installed around the barn for the sheep to graze, with two pastures created for rotational grazing and a field surrounding the school converted to alfalfa.
The lessons that followed after the creation of the Weston Sheep Program are endless for students of all ages; they are learning work ethic, time management, record keeping, animal nutrition, animal husbandry, forage production, soil nutrient management and pasture management, just to name a few. The elementary school teachers take their students out to learn about the animals; other classes focus on animal husbandry items such as trimming hooves and administering vaccinations.
Weston FFA co-presidents Kadee Lawrence and Matthew Jasper spoke to some of the lessons they have learned. Jasper said he has learned a lot about time management, especially with balancing school, sports and presentations for the project. For Lawrence, she has learned how to interact with people as a public relations person for the project, and has also taken on marketing of a product made from the sheep’s milk.
After the sheep were on school grounds, the students brainstormed ways to use the milk. They had their hearts set on making ice cream, but realized they had to start small first. That’s when they decided to make soap “on a whim,” Osborne said.
“It’s actually turned out great,” she said. “Every year we have a few kids who are soap makers.”
Students researched how to make soap from sheep’s milk online, coming up with two original scents to be sold at local craft fairs and at several local businesses. Sales for the soaps are at a bit of an uptick right now as people shop for holiday gifts, with proceeds going toward feeding and vaccinating the sheep in the program.
However, the students have never lost their interest in making ice cream from the sheep’s milk, and have now began planning the construction of a dairy processing room at their school so they can make and sell gelato at school events. Jasper and his classmates have been busy designing the room and will need to send the plans to the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection for final approval.
“I’m excited about the dairy plant — there’s so much for the kids to learn,” Osborne said.
Because no district money is being used to fund the processing facility, the students are currently raising funds for the micro-dairy equipment, planning several fundraisers and searching for grant opportunities.
“We are grateful for all the business support we have received so far,” Osborne said. “And we are so excited that the educational value of this project is understood by so many.”
Meanwhile, in another classroom in the Weston School District, an art teacher recently wrote and received a grant to purchase a carder so she can plan felting projects with students using the wool from the sheep — another way to showcase that the educational opportunities associated with having a herd of dairy sheep on school grounds are truly endless.
The district will be recognized for its Dairy Sheep Project this January at the Wisconsin State Education Convention in Milwaukee. The district’s project was one of four selected each year to be showcased at the convention, with the sheep project having its own display for attendees to check out.
Osborne is confident she and the students will have a lamb in their display.
“Things about our sheep have gone nationwide,” she said, adding that she receives comments from across the country on their Facebook page, ‘Emily and Miss Baa,’ named after their two original sheep. “It’s local and it’s more than that. The page is a cool way to see kids in action working with the sheep.”
With about 60 percent of the students in the school district without an agriculture background, it has been fun for Osborne to teach them about where their food and clothes come from.
“It’s kind of an odd project; you don’t expect everyone to be so interested in sheep,” said Lawrence, the Weston FFA co-president. “But everyone’s on board.”