Kaylee Brown believes home is where the heart is. She feels connected to the land, the animals, and the people of her home community, and once she graduates from college, she wants to move back home and teach youth about the importance of agriculture and the joys it holds.
"I want to come back to Madison County," she said. "I like the community here, and we all kind of support each other."
HireSmart Cares is helping make an ag-education career a reality for Kaylee, rewarding the 2023 high school graduate with a $1,000 scholarship to assist her at Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College (ABAC). HireSmart funds numerous ag-related scholarships and initiatives to support a new generation of farmers and ag leaders who will feed the U.S. and the world in years to come.
Kaylee, the daughter of Ray and Suzanne Brown, said she's always been drawn to the outdoors. She hunts and fishes with her father and has enjoyed working with cattle. Her family has a couple of cow/calf pairs, and her uncle has a larger cattle operation, where she helps vaccinate the animals.
She also showed cows in livestock exhibits during high school, adding that the camaraderie among fellow show team members was special.
"It was like one big family," she said.
Kaylee wants to be like her former ag teacher, Kalie Blevins, who left education to run her company, Bold Spring Blooms. She said Blevins was caring, a wonderful instructor, and instrumental in getting her involved in floral design.
"Once she left, it really hit me how much she did for me and how she helped me break out of my comfort zone," said Kaylee. "I want to be that mentor one day for kids."
Kaylee expresses interest in teaching either middle school or high school, where she can help students as they explore what they want to do after grade school.
"We'll see," she said. "I'll just see where God takes me."
In her spare time, Kaylee enjoys music and singing in church. She also finds peace in making floral arrangements.
"It just calms me," said the recent graduate, who won floral competitions in high school.
Kaylee spent summer days between graduation and college babysitting six children between the ages of 2 and 9. Now, she's off to a new challenge. And she's grateful to HireSmart for making that road a little smoother.
"I want to thank you for helping make it possible for me to pursue my dream of becoming an ag teacher," she wrote in a "thank you" letter. "Your contribution to my education is so generous and will allow me to focus on my studies."
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Think of your favorite hot meal on your plate — that welcome smell, the first satisfying bite. Eating is a simple act, but the journey of that food to your plate isn’t easy, at least not for farmers, who spend long hours tending to animals and crops so the rest of the world can work, play, and sleep on a full stomach.
Mark and Anne Lackey, owners of HireSmart Cares, understand that farmers need nourishment in the form of societal support. So, they want to ensure that the next generation of farmers gets what it needs. They’re stepping in to make a difference in their home community of Madison County, Georgia, a farming community that sits on the edge of an expanding Atlanta metropolitan area.
“We need to help ground what’s going on in Madison County,” said Mark. “The kids in agriculture are helping feed all the people that are here.”
North Georgia communities have seen the loss of both farmers and farmland to urban expansion. But Madison County aims to maintain its farming identity. The county is taking steps in a variety of ways to support its agricultural economy, including the development of an agricultural center for local youth, which will give children and teens hands-on ag experiences, such as caring for livestock, as they learn about possibilities in farming and a variety of ag-related careers.
A major component of the AG center will be a student livestock housing facility, including three barns for housing animals. Students who don’t live on farms and don’t have the money to purchase and maintain livestock will be able to care for their own animals thanks to support from HireSmart Cares, which has committed to funding 25 percent of the annual operating costs for the show-barn facilities. HireSmart Cares also funds trips to national livestock show competitions for Madison County youth.
Terry Chandler, a farmer and Madison County commissioner, and Cindy Jones, an AG teacher at Madison County High School, are leaders in the ag center effort—both voice deep gratitude for what HireSmart Cares is doing.
“They (HireSmart) are extremely generous, and it’s going to make this opportunity available to a lot more kids,” said Jones. “As we’re up and running, funds will be available through HireSmart Cares to supplement those students that can’t afford to do this on their own. And that’s going to be huge. We appreciate their confidence in us and their vision that they can see what this facility will do for students. It’s not just animal science principles these kids are learning. It’s employability skills. It’s responsibility. It’s dependability and appropriate behavior with each other and with adults. It just teaches a lot.”
Jones said participants who don’t choose a career in agriculture would gain a greater appreciation of the role ag plays in society.
“We have so many kids who come through the program who discover agriculture through these livestock projects,” she said. “And even if 50-60-70 percent of these kids don’t end up in an agricultural career, they understand it; they’re advocates. They’ll be better neighbors to that farmer. And we’ve improved our situation in the ag community by having someone who understands what we do.”
Chandler noted what a boost the HireSmart contributions are to a plan that has been years in the making with significant hurdles along the way.
“I think it is phenomenal,” he said. “You have some non-traditional AG people who see the value in this and want to contribute to it. That is just so encouraging to us. As we’ve struggled through this process, that’s so encouraging to have somebody step up like that.”
The student livestock housing facility is expected to open in the fall of 2023.
When Thomas Lord wanted to start his own business, HireSmart Cares stepped in with seed money so the high schooler could give his first entrepreneurial effort a go.
Thomas got a grant from Mark and Anne Lackey, Co-Founders of HireSmart Cares and a loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency (FSA), and with the help of his parents, Keith and Lauren, Thomas put up two 10’ by 16’ greenhouses where he would grow tomatoes and peppers for his business, F.R.O.G. Produce, which stands for “Farm-Raised, Organically Grown".
Thomas got the business idea after the agriculture department at the Broad River College and Career Academy in Danielsville, Georgia reactivated its aquaponics system, where plants are grown in the water that has been used to cultivate fish. Thomas was soon hooked on growing his own business.
“I originally thought about potentially growing flowers in the greenhouse and really growing anything in the greenhouse was really interesting to me,” he said.
Thomas cut the fish from the equation. But he had a vision — abundant tomatoes and peppers grown in a greenhouse through hydroponics, the process of growing plants using water and nutrients without soil. It would be his own niche on the family farm, where his mom said he has always been “faithful but halfhearted help in the poultry houses”.
Lauren said she loved seeing her son’s excitement about starting his own business.
“It was so exciting to see his enthusiasm and listen to his ideas for marketing,” she said. “He stayed up way too late researching various hydroponic systems, and we visited three operations to get ideas.”
Thomas said he initially grew “Rebelski" or some other beef steak type of tomato along with some cherry tomatoes, bell peppers and little mini bell peppers.
But temperature stabilization of the air and water proved a persistent challenge in the small greenhouses. Soil acts as a temperature stabilizer for roots in the ground, which aren’t exposed to the sun like in a greenhouse. Hydroponics requires considerable attention to the temperature, which affects the absorption rate of the nutrients. Thomas used an above-ground 50-gallon drum to feed the plants with water. He said a 250-gallon drum buried underground would be better for temperature stabilization. He also used fans to keep air flowing through the greenhouses. After he discovered the initial difficulties related to temperature, he narrowed his plan.
“I went more into focusing on specifically more beef steak variety of tomatoes, because we were noticing that some of our initial problems were keeping temperature control in the house since it’s such a small and contained area,” he said. “It was two 10’ by 16’ houses and a tiny fluctuation is a very big fluctuation in terms of the houses being so small. So, we decided to focus on the singular beef steak variety - so we could stabilize everything and make sure everything goes well before we start trying to branch out into some other options.”
Thomas sought to grow “indeterminate” tomatoes, which continue to set and ripen fruit throughout the growing season, instead of “determinate,” which hit their mature height and set all their fruit at once.
He said he would get a good first yield off the plants, but the second batch always proved problematic.
“The first harvest would go fine and then after that, they would just not really do anything,” he said.
Thomas is approaching the end of high school. He’ll cross the stage at Madison County High School in May, and then he’s planning to go to college and then work in the hospitality industry.
“The two industries I’ve looked at the most would be hotel and resort and the next one would be the food and beverage industry,” he said.
Thomas said he’s not planning to continue with hydroponics as a business in the short term, because of the costs, but it’s something he still loves and sees as a hobby. He said working in the greenhouses has been a good place to “think through the day or the week or a problem that you have that you’re trying to find a good solution for.”
But beyond growing plants, it’s been a growing endeavor for the teen, giving him perspective on the hard work it takes to start a business.
“It’s taught me a wide variety of life skills that I wouldn’t have otherwise thought about, because typically high schoolers aren’t thinking about budgeting or anything,” he said. “But with this, the FSA wanted me to list out the average estimated amount for each thing I went through. What do I need? What am I going to use? And it really helped me with learning how to set out a budget for something. I needed to know where I was going to stand. It might have been a little bit lower. It might have been a little bit higher, but it gave me a good estimate of what it was going to be and that’s just not a life skill that was an everyday thing for me. It’s definitely better to learn that earlier than later in life. These are things I wouldn’t have thought about on a typical day in high school.”
Thomas said he’s grateful for the opportunity HireSmart Cares provided.
“The Lackeys were generous enough to give me a grant to help with this, and they have also given me some really good advice,” said Thomas. “It’s been very helpful, and I really enjoy being able to communicate with them and appreciate the experience they’ve offered me.”