GARY | With the cackling of hens and the crowing of one rooster strutting around the chicken coop, the students at Thea Bowman Leadership Academy went about their work putting in fresh water and hay and talking among themselves.

The teens, who are taking the Entrepreneurship and Personal Finance class at the high school, are part of a group who started an urban farm at the school last year, and wrote a business plan to operate it.

Teachers LaMario Richards and Lynda Bodie said the farm was established last school year. Richards said the charter school piloted an advanced business class and the students turned their new chicken operation into Eagle's Nest Farm, with a wholesale certificate of registration through the Indiana State Egg Board.

Bodie, who is in her fifth year as 4-H sponsor, said it began when she started a 4-H club at the school. She said they worked with some Lowell-area farmers who helped them to get started and gifted the club with 20 chickens. Bodie said the students showed the chickens during the Lake County Fair.

"The chickens were producing eggs and the situation became that we had a ready-made business at hand and we had come up with a business plan to further develop," she said.

Richards said the students were tasked to put together a business plan giving them practical business experience.

As a result of a conference she went to, Bodie developed a relationship with Eve Kaiser, who opened LOAF, Local Organic Affordable Foods, in Chesterton. LOAF opened in July 2014. The 2,500-square-foot grocery and general store offers specialty and fresh foods. It began offering the eggs produced at Eagles Nest Farm in January.

Richards and Bodie said it's a student-run operation.

"The kids make every single decision for the business," Richards said. "They feed the animals. They designed the packaging for the egg carton cover. They make the decisions regarding reinvestment of the money back into the business. They decide what products they want to expand to and any new markets. Any major decisions have to be brought back to the board of directors which consists of myself and Lynda Bodie."

Bodie said the students also process the eggs at the school, including cleaning them, checking them for quality and for cracks.

Bodie said the 17 chickens produce between seven and nine dozen eggs a week. The vast majority of those eggs are sold through LOAF. She said a few have been sold at the school.

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"I was at the store one day bringing in a new delivery of eggs and there were two ladies there, and each had a dozen eggs but one of them wanted another dozen," Bodie said. "The owner told them not to worry, the supplier is here. I thought it was great to see that people really like our eggs.

"What I'd like the students to learn from this is what it takes to run a business. I want them to see that they have the ability to do that. I want them to understand about sustainable life. I'm not saying I expect them to be farmers but they need to know where their food comes from. I've learned a lot myself about eggs working with this project. I've also learned that when you go to the grocery store, you don't really know how long those products have been there," Bodie said.

Senior Alicia Williams has been working with the chickens and picking eggs since the inception of the project.

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"I want to be a vet," she said. "I love animals. I like looking after the chickens and feeding them and I've done a lot of research on chickens. I know that they can't be in certain temperatures because it affects their egg production. I know you can't put too many hens in one enclosure and you only need one rooster for every 15 or so chickens.

"Two roosters would create to much conflict. I've also learned that chickens are different. Some lay white eggs and some lay brown eggs, depending on the breed. Chickens need a lot of calcium so the eggs will have a hard shell," Williams said.

She also said she loved the entrepreneurship class and the advanced business class. "Creating a business plan was an eye-opening experience. We worked on different parts of the business such as the marketing plan, financial plan, sales plan, organization and marketing and our product line. We did lots of research," she said.

Senior Desmond Miller said he began working at Eagle's Nest Farm a couple of months ago, working through the summer break to help out. "I like to make sure the water is fresh and there's plenty of hay," said the teen, who wants to be a pharmacy technician.

Bodie and Richards said the farm also raises greens, arugula and other small vegetables. They have connected with another local farming family which is holding three goats for them until the students have built an enclosure for the goats.

Bodie said former Gary Mayor Thomas Barnes, who co-founded the charter school and is a member of the Drexel Foundation which operates the school, would love to see the farm continue to expand offering fresh foods to the community.

"We've got the beginnings of an aquaponics set up outside where we would like to grow herbs and greens. Underneath the tank, we'd have talapia. That would be another sustainable life," Bodie said, adding that people like fresh food and often can't find it.

"It would be great to grow this kind of business in an urban community. It could create jobs for people and help the entire city. I hope the students understand it's not so difficult to do something like this. It takes a lot of work but it can be done. That's part of what some of the students will be working on this semester -- checking the ordinances, finding out if they need a building permit for the goat enclosure and if they will have to pay any taxes on the structure."

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Southlake County Reporter

Carmen is an award-winning journalist who has worked at The Times newspaper for 20 years. Before that she also had stints at The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., The Post-Tribune and The News Dispatch in Michigan City.