Some students ‘essential’ to MTSU workforce, but health remains ‘top priority’

Erin Coleman works the front end of the process, one of several Middle Tennessee State University students milking more than 50 dairy cows twice daily at the School of Agriculture’s Farm Laboratory in Lascassas, Tennessee.

Brendon Puckett and two others handle the back end, delivering the bottled and packaged white and chocolate milk across campus and to 15 off-campus businesses.

They are among 15 MTSU Farm Labs and Creamery student workers — and about 50 altogether on campus in various academic departments — considered “essential” by Provost Mark Byrnes, who evaluates deans’ and chairs’ essential requests before approving or not approving.

MTSU President Sidney A. McPhee recently announced that most university personnel would move to working remotely in line with state and federal recommendations for more social distancing to help slow the spread of COVID-19.

MTSU students transitioned to remote learning on March 23, but a small group of student workers have continued to staff areas where their hands-on services are needed.

“Student workers are essential to many university operations, including the farm, on-campus computer labs and flight instruction,” Byrnes said.

“Our top priority is keeping our students and staff healthy, but we’re letting students who want to work, and can do so safely, continue working,” he added. “That helps the students gain experience and earn money, and helps keep the university running at some level even during these strange times.”

All of the agriculture students agreed to accept the challenge and continue performing their duties while the coronavirus pandemic impacts the community.

“No matter what, the cows still have to be milked,” said Coleman, 20, a sophomore animal science major who lives in Readyville, Tennessee, on a small family farm.

Matthew Wade, director of the MTSU Farm Laboratories, said “it’s business as usual” at the MTSU Creamery and Farm, where 750 of 900 total acres are actually farmed.

“We milk twice a day and the Creamery is still selling a lot of milk. … Students absolutely play a vital role in the Creamery and Farm Laboratory operations. All of my student workers have been approved as essential employees.”

“With regard to COVID-19, most farm work is an individual thing,” Wade added. “It’s usually just one student working alone at each farm unit (milking, pigs, baby calves, crops and more) and one student delivering (milk) at a time.”

There is an added emphasis in observing MTSU and state health guidelines.

“We are taking all of the normal precautions,” he said. “Hair nets, washing hands multiple times, wearing gloves and keeping our distance. If anyone is not feeling well, they’ll stay home and someone else will pick up the slack. So far, we have not had that issue.”

Coleman is taking 17 hours this semester. She also works at the milk processing plant, at a small goat farm in Murfreesboro and is considering a career in the dairy industry.

“They (Wade and other managers) have stressed health,” she said. “We’ve definitely been sanitizing more and making sure we keep our distance.”

No MTSU classes are being permitted to come to the farm and all school-age children’s tours and some research has been canceled. Texting, phone calls and emails have replaced staff meetings.

Puckett, 22, spends eight to 10 hours a week either picking up the milk from the farm and bringing it by tanker truck to the milk processing plant in the Stark Agricultural Center or delivering the bottled milk to Lascassas Feed & Supply, Pearcy’s Market, Hattie Jane’s Creamery, Rutherford Farmers Co-Op in Murfreesboro and Woodbury, Tennessee, or a number of other businesses.

A Gallatin, Tennessee, native, Puckett, who plans to graduate in December, wanted to keep working in order to pay his house rent, utilities, gas, cell phone and his MTSU bill.

“I had an option to say no, but I said ‘yes’ when I received a text from Steve (Dixon, milk processing plant manager) about continuing to work,” said Puckett, 22, a senior agribusiness major minoring in secondary education while taking 16 hours this semester.

“My mindset was that I still wanted to make money. College students have a lot of payments (to make).”

Wade said some students are shooting videos with their cell phones at the farm and Creamery “to create a quick video and put it online so students can get an idea of what they’d be doing if they were out here.”

The farm, dairy and School of Agriculture are part of the College of Basic and Applied Sciences.

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