MANATEE -- One Lincoln Middle School eighth-grader stood in the tilapia tank to clean it, while sixth-graders were gathered by the chicken coop.
A turkey darted across the pasture, pursued by three eighth-grade girls.
"Don't chase the turkey!" Kimberly Lough, the agricultural science teacher at Lincoln said.
She turned to her sixth-graders.
"Now, the chickens are a little angry today, so you may want to come around to the other side when I open the pen," she said. "Who wants to volunteer to search inside for eggs?"
The FFA chapter at Lincoln Middle School has been recognized as one of the five top agricultural science middle school programs in the nation by the national Future Farmers of America organization.
"This program is developing leaders and training them for career success," Lough said. "It also allows them to take ownership of something in a safe environment."
The agricultural science academy and the FFA chapter at Lincoln allow students to raise livestock for entry in fairs, help maintain a greenhouse, raise tilapia and try their hands at hydroponics and urban gardening.
The program also features "composting for the future," in which items such as fruit rinds and banana peels from the cafeteria are put in the com
post to reduce landfill waste and create nutrient-rich soil without synthesized fertilizer
"Students are learning how to conserve land," said Lincoln Middle Principal Ronnie King. "This is what all of the world eats and what we wear. This is probably the most important industry, but also the most basic, and it sometimes gets taken for granted."
As one of the top five chapters in the nation, students at Lincoln have been invited to the national conference Oct. 30-31 in Louisville, Ky., where the winner for the top middle school chapter in the nation will be recognized.
There is no cash prize for the title, but Lough said she is thrilled to be considered. Lough said the recognition will be positive for future fair entries and fundraisers.
The program has had to overcome some setbacks. In the spring, Lincoln Middle School's agricultural science program was vandalized twice. Tilapia tanks were disturbed and dead fish left on the pavement. Strawberry plants appeared to be smashed with a baseball bat.
The vandalism has not reoccurred since but Lough said continued community awareness can help keep the program safe.
Dylan Alvarez, an eighth-grader at Lincoln Middle, said agricultural science taught him how to raise livestock and grow plants as well as learn about science, nutrition, public speaking and responsibility.
"It is a lot more than just planting a seed in the ground," Alvarez said. "Right now I am in a fundamentals class learning the science behind agriculture. I'm going to try to enter my own pig this year."
Eighth-grader Jonathan Tyler said he is excited about the school agriculture program getting the spotlight.
"This will give us attention and show that being smart is more than just the FCAT," Tyler said.
Lough said Lincoln stands out because its diverse program includes urban gardening.
"I like to give projects that each child can do at their own house, whether they live on a big farm or in a small apartment space," Lough said. "A lot of these kids come from low-income households so we also have food parties where we eat the fresh food that we grew."
Lough said the agriculture program takes a lot of maintenance. She works many hours of her own time in the pens and the pastures, often putting in between 60 and 70 hours a week.
"I do it because I love it," Lough said. "I hope to see continued student ownership and the opportunity to be responsible."
The other four outstanding middle school FFA chapters receiving recognition are Chatham Middle School in Virginia, Signal Knob Middle School in Virginia, Tomlin Middle School in Florida and South Sumter Middle School in Florida.