TURNER — For 40 years, Sharon Hathaway taught home economics to hundreds of students at Leavitt Area High School.

At noon Wednesday, the children of several of those SAD 52 students arrived with Hathaway on a school bus at Brigeen Farms Inc.

The 9th- and 10th-generation family dairy farm at 590 Upper Street is run by Steve and Mary Briggs and Bill and Betsy (Briggs) Bullard, a former LAHS student of Hathaway’s.

The 20 teens are students in Hathaway’s Exploring River Valley class, for which the Turner resident was recognized on Oct. 17 in Augusta as the 2013 Maine Agriculture in the Classroom Teacher of the Year.  

“It’s always nice to be recognized for what you do,” Hathaway said.

“This is obviously not my first year of teaching, so when you do something for your whole life and you get recognized, it’s kind of nice.”

Hathaway and Leavitt launched the Exploring River Valley course in the fall of 2010 to increase students’ awareness of agriculture in the Androscoggin River valley of Greene, Leeds and Turner. 

“I think we’re one of the first high schools in the state to do this,” she said.

The course promotes student understanding of agriculture and natural resources while incorporating current and historical connections to their community.

Earlier this year, Hathaway received a nearly $5,000 grant to support a project to increase students’ awareness of agriculture career paths, Jamie Badershall, communications manager for the Maine Dairy Promotion Board and Maine Dairy and Nutrition Council, stated Tuesday by email.

The curriculum has multiple layers allowing teachers and students to pick and choose activities that infuse agricultural career awareness to their existing studies either as an individual student project or as a large group presentation, Badershall said. 

Local agricultural professionals collaborate with teachers and students to customize experiences to each student’s interest.

Hathaway, a food-science/natural-resources teacher, and her students also hosted an expo based on agricultural careers.

On Wednesday morning she took the class to the Curtis Homestead Conservation Area in Leeds for the course’s program on sustainable forestry. Last week, they toured Ricker Orchards in Turner and learned about the apple business.

“I had most of these kids’ parents and I went to school with their grandparents. I’m a lifer here,” she said.

Hathaway said the class “kind of fell into my lap.”

“A group of community people wanted to have a class like this, so eventually they asked me if I would be the teacher, and that’s how I got into it,” she said.

“I have kind of an uncanny sense of trends, because when I heard about this, which was in 2009, I don’t think agriculture was in schools too much, but now it’s in just about every school.

“So, I’m learning right along with the kids. I’ve always been around food, so now I’m on the other end of it,” she said.

She and the students followed Betsy Bullard into the milking parlor while several teens  scrunched their noses and commented about the pungent manure odor.

“Fifteen minutes of odor and you don’t notice it anymore,” Hathaway said.

Standing with the teens and listening to Bullard describe an automated milking vacuum system, Hathaway said she’d never milked a cow by hand.

“I’m not a farm person, which is why this is all interesting to me,” she said.

“I’ve always lived here and been around the farms, but I’ve never had any experience in it,” she said.

“I’ve recreated myself 100 times,” Hathaway said of her teaching career. “It’s been quite a good thing for me and I really enjoy it. Right now I teach food science, which is kind of a hybrid of cooking and science, and I teach this class.”

Bullard’s father, Steve Briggs, attached vacuum hoses to the teats of Holstein cow No. 7097, and the machine began suctioning milk from its udder.

“Guys, come over here and learn about technology,” Hathaway said to five male students talking amongst themselves.

Bullard said the farm’s 425 cows produce more than 80 pounds of milk each daily, or 10 gallons apiece, filling half of a tractor-trailer tanker a day with 34,000 pounds of milk.

“Have you ever seen a cow milked by hand before?” Hathaway asked the students before photographing some watching the process.

Betsy Bullard credited Hathaway with rekindling high school student interest in agriculture.

“She was my teacher in high school and I think it’s pretty amazing what she’s done with the class,” she said.

“This area has a huge agricultural heritage and I think as we kind of get further away from that heritage, people don’t necessarily know all that much about it. So she did the amazing Ag Expo at the CareerCenter,” Bullard said.

“It was pretty eye-opening for folks to see all the different options. You know, there are jobs out there, some that are pretty interesting,” she said.

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