Photo Gallery | Mount Everett Future Farmers of America fair

SHEFFIELD -- Dozens of youngsters gathered around the animal pen to point at and reach out to pet its occupants: Several lambs, a couple of kids and an alpaca named Mia.

Mount Everett Regional High School junior Samantha Hoover and recent graduate Pablo Orobio-Wolff were in the pen as well to tend to the livestock. But for the children, it was all about the animals.

"One girl asked about what breed of sheep we had, but for the most part, they just really want to touch them," Hoover said.

For Hoover, Orobio-Wolff and the other members of the school's Future Farmers of America (FFA) chapter, Monday's agricultural fair at the school was just about that -- getting students excited and interested in animals and learning about farming.

Mia Bills, who also just graduated, said the school has one of the smallest FFA chapters in the country, but its students and staff members are working hard to grow Mount Everett's agricultural education program.

This spring, the FFA chapter made great strides, when the Mount Everett FFA horse-judging team won the state competition. Juniors Malik Hogan and Anica Pond, sophomore Breialynn Wells and Bills will go on to represent Mount Everett and Massachusetts at the National FFA Competition this October in Louisville, Ky. Hogan also placed first in the individual horse-judging category.

"It was awesome, especially because [our chapter's] so small," said Hogan of the team's achievement.

"We're definitely the underdogs going up against some of the biggest schools in the country," said Bills. Even though she graduated this year, she'll still be able to participate in the fall's national competition.

Danielle Melino has been the school's part-time agricultural teacher for the past 21 2 years, and said having the students participate in FFA has elevated their education.

"They've definitely taken ownership of the projects they've done," she said.

Students who have taken her class in the past 18 months have been able to gain hands-on livestock rearing experience on campus. Grants from the Janet Fund and Eagle Fund helped to purchase the school's first flock of sheep, which produced seven lambs this spring. Students from the school's wood shop also built a barn and paddock adjacent to the high school's athletic field, where the animals are kept. Several local farms and families donate additional animals, like alpacas and goats, to help with the students' studies. The students also raise chickens, rabbits, and Japanese button quail.

Over the summer, some students will intern with Melino and work at the school farm and on Melino's own farm. They will show their animals at area agricultural fairs, as well as prepare to participate in The Eastern States Exposition in September.

Nearly a dozen other local farms and family farmers also participated in Monday's fair to introduce other students and community members to the work they do.

"I hope they get more interested in this," said Wells.

"That way they can understand why it means so much to us," Pond said.

To learn more about the Mount Everett agricultural program, visit teacher Danielle Melino's blog at: http://mrsmelino.wordpress.com