Taking a Lesson From Developing World, Chicago High School Teaches Cattle Farming

Raising cows has lifted people out of poverty in developing countries. A high school in south Chicago is betting on heifers to help young Americans do the same.

(Photo: Markku Åkerfelt/Flickr)

Jun 17, 2015· 4 MIN READ
Sarah McColl has written for Yahoo Food, Bon Appétit, and other publications. She's based in Brooklyn, New York.

Here’s an image you might not expect: Imagine a group of agricultural heavyweights from Nebraska on the far South Side of Chicago. In starched jeans and boots, they’re visiting a 72-acre agricultural operation with a 40-acre farm, aquaponics outfit, and farm stand, all located within city limits.

“The first thing people get to see now when they drive into the city are six head of beef cattle,” said Bill Hook, principal of Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences, a public magnet school.

The bucolic view is the result of a collaboration between the school and Nebraska Leadership Education/Action Development, a University of Nebraska–led program to train young agriculturists. The program donated four head of beef cattle to the school last year. Students at the school, 69 percent of whom are minorities, picked up their new charges over their spring break.

The first year of the program was a success—the cattle were grass-fed through the summer, then given a mixture of cracked corn, oats, and spent grain from a local brewery and restaurant (which then purchased one of the cattle). When the Nebraska tour returned in February, one student said he’d finally found something in life he enjoyed: the cattle.

“Once I heard that,” rancher Mark Miles told the Omaha World-Herald, “That was it. I knew I had to help.” This year’s donation, six head of beef cattle from the Cornhusker State, were delivered to the campus last month and contribute to the animal science program at one of the best high schools in the state, with a graduation rate consistently higher than Chicago Public Schools' average. Thousands of applications roll in each year for the 170 spots in the entering class, but the draw isn’t the 60 laying hens—whose eggs show up at local hospitals—or the beloved cattle, though they end up being what makes the school unique.

“The vast majority of parents have kids apply because it’s a good, safe school. That’s why they come,” Hook said. “But when they get here they realize there’s so much to agriculture.” More than enjoyment, the school pivots around a shared sense of purpose. Agriculture—the livestock programs in particular—become the medium through which students gain a sense of pride and confidence.

“It’s funny to see the kids walking to school, and sometimes they pick up trash out front. You don’t see that at very many schools. They have a sense of ownership,” Hook said. “I think a lot of that is because we do have the animals. They understand that we rely on the animals, we rely on the land, and so they respect it a whole lot more.”

Responsibility—on a scale larger than the parental lecture most kids get as soon as they can say the word "dog"—is one of the driving tenets on campus. Animals still get hungry on Christmas morning, and the mare never seems to give birth at 11 a.m. on Tuesday, Hook said, laughing, it’s always Saturday after midnight.

Yet, when he shows up for the birth, there are already 30 kids in the barn, he said.

“They have the sense that animals depend on us to survive and to thrive, and we in turn rely on the animals for the same thing. So they get that sense of responsibility," Hook said. Which may lend itself to a youthful sense of awe, but when there's a 1,600- to 1,800-pound animal that needs steering, no one hesitates for long.

"You see these little, young girls, 15 years old, bringing these horses around or bringing these cattle through the chute," Hook said. "I think they’re in awe with the animal, but I think they’re almost in awe with themselves when they realize what they can do.”

Sometimes a cow isn’t just a cow, in other words, but an agent for personal and community development, something Heifer International has seen the impacts of in 125 countries.

The science backs up the advocacy group's findings. A large-scale study published recently in Science found significant evidence that using livestock as part of a holistic community development model, including training and support, is successful in moving people out of poverty. In six randomized trials in Ethiopia, Ghana, Honduras, India, Pakistan, and Peru with a total of 10,495 participants, researchers found statistically significant impacts at the end of the interventions on all 10 key outcomes they measured, including food security, income, and women’s decision-making. One year after the end of the intervention, eight out of 10 outcomes still showed statistically significant gains and there was very little or no decline in the impact of the program on the key variables (consumption, household assets, and food security).

“The history of our work has always centered around livestock as a means for a path out of poverty,” Heifer International Chief Marketing Officer Cindy Jones-Nyland said. “But one of the things that this Science study showed is that the other pieces—the holistic pieces—that surround that actual livestock or asset transfer are just as important as that actual act in and of itself.”

Like the savings and loan group, formed by a woman in Malawi, whose interest rates go in part to a social welfare fund for the community and whose organizer has gone on to start 17 similar groups. Or an Ecuadoran woman presiding over a dairy co-op meeting where the majority of those present were men. After delivering her speech, she returned to her seat, where her young daughter climbed in her lap.

“It’s something you can’t measure in terms of a data point, but those sorts of things are what’s going to tangibly change future generations in these areas where women haven’t played a central role,” Jones-Nyland said.

Of course, many of the neighborhoods the kids at CHAS come from aren't exactly models of holistic community development—far from it—and a head of beef cattle in Chicago and a heifer in the Mekong Delta are, well, different kettles of fish. But there are benefits to the experience nonetheless, even though most of graduates don’t pursue farming. Although the majority of students at CHAS are from low-income families, 85 percent of graduates enter college.

“I guarantee those kids who never go into ag are just as well served by their experience as students who do,” Hook said. “They understand you’ve got to get up early. You’ve got to show up early and stay late, work hard, and do whatever it takes to get things done. That’s just the sense that we have here.”

“They have ownership and accountability to themselves and each other,” Jones-Nyland said of communities she’s seen participate in a holistic-focused livestock model. “Those are the mind shifts that will carry the change through.”