Hands on experience

Volunteer brings meat unit to Lewis & Clark Berthold school

Ashton Gerard/MDN  Jim Hennessy observes as students Sailor Blahut, left, and Elise Foster mix different seasonings into ground meat at Lewis and Clark school in Berthold.

Creating opportunities for students in the community is something Jim Hennessy has volunteered his personal time for over the last couple of years. It all started in Stanley with a meats unit, where Hennessy provided equipment the school otherwise wouldn’t have to teach students how to cure and process meat.

It started at Stanley High School and has since spread to Parshall and, most recently, Lewis and Clark school in Berthold.

Jim Hennessy graduated from North Dakota State University in 1987 and worked with a corporate meat company for about five years before moving on to become a Mountrail County Extension Agent in April 1993.

In 2004, Hennessy created and transferred to the Mountrail County Ag Agency. There, he’s been assisting the residents of Mountrail County, including cities like Stanley, New Town and Parshall, with their agricultural questions and inquiries.

Because of his time in the meat industry, Hennessy wanted to bring it back to the kids and show them that agriculture always goes one step farther. With Hennessy, the company was more focused on quantity, not quality. He wants to show kids and adults alike that they can control the quality of the meat that they process and have a better product in the end.

Jim Hennessy, right, helps Matthew Schauer package jerky without trapping air bubbles in the package.

Hennessy started going into the classrooms about three years ago in Stanley. The meat lab at the school didn’t pass inspection, so Hennessy offered for students to come to the Mountrail County Extension Center where they have a certified kitchen for the students to work in.

The past six or seven years, Hennessy has offered the same class to adults in the Mountrail County area, and decided it was time to take it to the children.

“I think that we’ve got a lot of opportunity for kids to get involved in the meat industry,” Hennessy explained. “We’re losing a lot of meat shops in the state and it’s kind of a lost trade that a lot of kids don’t have any experience to it.”

In the class, students have the chance to make breakfast sausage, pepper sticks, whole muscle jerky, ground jerky and summer sausage.

“A lot of them get to take the stuff home and share it with their family,” Hennessy said. “Here, they’re trying to get a meats lab.”

Ashton Gerard/MDN LCB freshman Matthew Schauer pulls a huge piece of jerky out of an air fryer to check its progress.

Currently, Lewis and Clark Berthold has the space for a meats lab, but according to ag teacher Johnna Varty, the project was never finished. Part of the reason Hennessy offered to host the class in Berthold was to help the school show what they can do and what equipment they will need to make it happen.

“It opens up so much for the kids because we don’t have any of this equipment here at the school yet and it’s a really great unit,” Varty said. “The kids have been so excited about it and learning what different cuts of meat are and where they come from.”

She said without the time and equipment provided by Hennessy, the school wouldn’t have been able to have the meats unit. Hennessy’s generosity is something Varty is grateful for.

Varty said there is definitely an interest from students in the meats unit. Even students she wouldn’t have thought to be into the two-week session are really honing in on what the unit means and others are thinking that working with meat could be a career.

“When the new addition was built, originally there was a meats lab that was going to be part of it, but it got kind of put on hold,” Varty explained. “So I think if we would be able to finish that, we would definitely have kids that would want to take a class that had that either as the whole class or at least part of the class.”

The students of Lewis and Clark in Berthold have all been interested in the class and all for different reasons.

Sailor Blahut, a freshman, said the class has been a lot of fun and she didn’t know the process of making the different kinds of meat takes as long as it does.

“I’ve learned how to tell different kinds of meat apart and what seasonings to put together and not to put together,” Blahut said. She said her favorite part of the class was mixing the seasonings because the flavors were always different and it was fun to try what they had created.

Blahut said the class always started by washing their hands before moving to cut the different kinds of meat that would then be put into a grinder for whatever they were making that day. After being cut, ground and seasoned, the meat would go into an air fryer and would be packaged once it’s done.

Freshman Tucker Johnson said food safety was one of the main takeaways of the class for him, as well as the proper techniques of seasoning and cutting.

“It’s a different class than any other class,” Johnson said. “You can go to an English class every day but you don’t always get to go cut meat or make sausage every day.”

Hennessy says a lot of kids normally don’t realize what it takes to make the different kinds of meat products. The number one thing Hennessy teaches is food safety, with fun being the second priority.

“We talk about sanitation, we talk about the different cuts of meat that go into the making the product and when you make it yourself you can control the quality and make it more wholesome,” Hennessy explained.

If other schools in the area had the opportunity to have a meats unit every year, Hennessy thinks that kids would for sure have a great time with it and learn that agriculture is more than just farming and ranching.

Varty says she’s already been talking about next year and being able to incorporate the meats unit into her classes again for the 2018-19 school year.

“I think that kids also find out that in agriculture, it doesn’t just stop at harvest time or when you sell your calves in the fall, but it goes way beyond that,” Hennessy said. “It goes into metropolises where they make a lot of this product that is sold to the people. It’s just a value-added thing.”