Beefing Up Learning
June 7, 2021
Written By Neal Fandek
More than half the students at Ash Grove High School are food insecure.
That’s a shocking figure for Lawrence County, Missouri’s top county for beef cattle. It’s especially astonishing considering southwest Missouri is among the leading cattle production areas in the country, and the Show-Me State is home to the nation’s No. 1 calf market.
Any home with “limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods” meets the USDA definition of food insecurity.
Nathan Isakson, an agriculture instructor at Ash Grove High, defines it as kids showing up to school hungry and unable to learn. Even amid a pandemic that affected him personally, Isakson made sure his FFA chapter, local cattlemen and his school participated in the Mo Beef for Mo Kids program. While he and his pregnant wife quarantined after she contracted COVID-19, Isakson coordinated with ranchers and meat processors to beef up (pun intended) his school’s lunch program for hungry students.
As a cattleman himself, Isakson and his wife keep brood cows and calves at the family farm that his great-grandfather established. When he’s not busy on the farm, Isakson teaches Ag Science I and II, a hands-on ag sales and marketing class, animal science, ag power, ag construction, and a supervised agricultural experience (SAE) class.
He also co-directs a cross-curricular unit with the English department wherein students present ag-related speeches. The English teacher grades them on the quality of the message, while Isakson evaluates the content and presentation (a perennial FFA emphasis)—a win for science and literacy.
Then there’s the cross-curricular farm-to-fork tour that’s packed into a single day. It starts at a local packing plant, goes on to a seedstock operation, continues at the Joplin Regional Stockyards, and ends at a local supermarket. Isakson says the number of his students who will raise cattle is relatively small, but nearly all will buy beef in stores.
“It makes their learning come alive,” he says. “Most people never have the opportunity to walk into a meat packing plant or go into a farmer’s office. This is truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience for them.”
Regina Magers, whose son Dillon served as president of Ash Grove’s FFA chapter and whom Isakson advised, says, “He’s taught my child, and everyone else’s, a lot of things in FFA.” Public speaking is a great example, she says. “Dillon can now talk well in front of people; he’s great at dealing with people. I credit Mr. Isakson with that.” Dillon’s polish helped him qualify for the A+ Scholarship Program, which pays tuition and fees for two years at a community college.
Chris Thompson, Ash Grove High School principal, says that’s a perfect illustration of Isakson’s impact. “His commitment to ag education and the FFA organization is second to none. And I don’t say that lightly. I’ve been doing this for 26 years, and he ranks right up there in the top 1 percent. He wants his students to be better versions of themselves.” He jokingly adds, “I’m proud of myself for hiring him!”
“I do my best to practice what I preach,” Isakson says, referring to his family’s cattle business. “It gives me more ways to connect with students. That’s valuable firsthand experience.”
And he shares that experience in “Maverick-Minute,” videos that show him getting his hands, boots, jeans and everything else dirty, testing soil, working at the stockyards, producing hay, selecting bulls, treating cattle for pink eye and more.
No matter their eventual profession, Isakson is focused on growing his students’ understanding of agriculture while helping to ensure there’s enough food at his school to prevent kids from going hungry.