Nestled on a four-acre site near Queens College and the bustling Long Island Expressway is a farm with 150 chickens, numerous rabbits, two goats, assorted peacocks and pheasants and even four alpacas.
The bucolic scene is part of John Bowne High School’s agriculture program that also includes a greenhouse, orchard and field crops. The popular program — the only agriculture department in the city school system — attracts 600 students, known as Aggies, with 80 percent of them going on to college and 50 percent majoring in agriculture, according to Steve Perry, assistant principal for agriculture.
The alpacas are the latest addition to the farm. The program gives students a chance to work with these exotic animals that hail from South America, muck out the enclosures and feed them. In addition, the animals are sheared once a year and their hair sent for processing to make skeins of yarn, which are sold to knitters.
“It is hypoallergenic and warmer than wool,” Perry said. “We got 60 skeins that will be sold by the Queens County Farm Museum for us at the Union Square farmers market in Manhattan.”
The school’s two dairy goats are currently on a diet so they can be bred. Goat milk is good for those who are lactose-intolerant and can be made into cheese.
With the success of maintaining larger animals, Perry is thinking about getting a few miniature cows. There are empty stalls ready for them in the alpaca-goat building.
Bowne’s chickens are kept in a warm building away from the roosters. “They are not stressed and lay about 100 eggs a day,” Perry said. “Students dispense feed for them and collect the eggs. There is quite a demand for them at the school store where they sell for $2 a dozen year-round.”
When school is in session, the store is open 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. and sells seasonal items such as vegetables in the warm weather and poinsettias, holiday wreaths and flower arrangements in the winter. During the summer, students set up a vegetable stand outside the school at 63-25 Main St. in Flushing.
Bowne’s rabbits are now being bred and sold. Students took most of the first litters, with a consent form signed by parents. In the future, others will be sold to pet stores.
In a nearby building are kept rats, hamsters, guinea pigs, gerbils and mice. “We teach kids how to care for lab animals,” Perry said, noting it prepares them for careers in research settings.
On the school grounds are strutting white peacocks and some of the more traditional iridescent ones. Beautiful multi-colored Chinese golden pheasants are kept nearby and look out from their large cage. “They are just so magnificent. I wanted the kids to see them,” he said.
Birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish are maintained inside the high school. Trout are raised and released into the wild, while tilapia will be sold in the school store or maybe in a nearby fish market. Fingerling striped bass is the latest addition. Eventually, they will be sold also.
The profits from all produce, eggs and products raised at Bowne go back into the agriculture program for feed, fertilizer and seed.
“We find that students gain a lot of confidence by working with the animals and for many it gives them a skill,” Perry said. “We become the center of the kids’ community. They are very active in pursuit of their careers.”
Aggies are expected to get 300 hours of work experience either at a pet shop, zoo, veterinarian’s office or through a summer placement program on an upstate farm.
“The students in the agriculture program have a sense of belonging and are with other students having the same passion,” Perry said.
He noted Bowne has the largest FFA chapter in the state, a youth organization for secondary school agriculture students, and does very well in state and national competition. “We were also among the top five in the national competition,” Perry said, noting the Aggies compete in categories including small animal care, floriculture, agriculture business, agriculture mechanics and equestrian.
He added that three of the department’s teachers are graduates of Bowne’s agriculture program. “And I am one of them,” said Perry, who has worked at the school for 26 years.