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MN2020 - Applied Science Builds Minnesota from the Ground Up
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Applied Science Builds Minnesota from the Ground Up

July 16, 2014 By Lee Egerstrom, Economic Development Fellow

When a farmer named Thomas Jefferson was helping design buildings, grounds and curricula for the University of Virginia, he argued emphatically that there should be an agriculture course at the new university.

Minnesota educators, other public officials and community leaders should revisit Jefferson’s thinking. We are creating a new Minnesota with many of our newest Minnesotans looking for ways to start careers and enterprises built on food, agriculture and use of our other natural resources.

Jefferson viewed agriculture as the applied science that utilized all other known sciences. The late Wayne Rasmussen (1915-2004), a long-time agricultural historian at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, liked to tell how some fellow Virginians thought Jefferson was off base, that agriculture wasn’t a science, and that the absence of such courses at Oxford and Harvard was proof positive.

Not so, insisted Jefferson. In an 1803 letter to David Williams, for instance, he explained: “It is a science of the very first order. It counts among it handmaids of the most respectable sciences, such as Chemistry, Natural Philosophy, Mechanics (now physics), Mathematics generally, Natural History, Botany.”

We could expand that list considerably today. That’s precisely what some Minnesota educators are trying to do and are working to retool most basic applied science courses for both high schools and for community adult education.

The Center for Rural Policy and Development, for instance, has a report that looks at the growing immigrant population in rural Minnesota and identifies the continuing education needs of Minnesota’s newest farmers.

School officials – urban and rural – should review the report’s findings. On the one hand, local schools have or could have the educational talent in place to work with the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system (MnSCU) and the University of Minnesota programs to offer such adult education. Simultaneously, local schools have or could have the talent in place to teach the students who are next generation farmers, food and agriculture entrepreneurs and natural resources managers and developers.

History is repeating itself. New Minnesotans from various parts of the world are taking to the land and working with resources to start careers just as Germans, Norwegians, Dutch, Irish and other immigrants did two, three and four generations ago.

Thaddeus MacCamant, a botanist and crops management instructor at Central Lakes College, Staples, wrote the report on the educational needs and interests of immigrant farmers for the Mankato-based public research center. He based it on surveys of recognized education needs by working with Hmong and Hispanic-Latino organizations.

High school students make their interests and needs known by enrolling in classes in those districts that give them the option of studying Jefferson’s applied sciences.

Again reflecting the changing faces of Minnesota as well as changes in business, the Minnesota Department of Education refers to these courses as Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources (AFNR) programs. That realizes there are more career opportunities in AFNR fields in urban areas and rural cities than out of the farms, and competitions through affiliated FFA programs acknowledge these career paths.

AFNR programs at schools and enrollments are still anchored in past history when AFNR was mostly referred to as vocational agriculture. FFA was then just a shortened form of Future Farmers of America, suggesting a career path for a shrinking number of today’s students.

Jim Ertl, executive secretary of Minnesota FFA, and Joel Larsen, program specialist for AFNR Education at the Minnesota Department of Education, said in a recent telephone visit that the school curriculum programs and FFA are seeking to reach more students from families of the new Minnesotans. To achieve this, however, more urban schools will need to consider offering these applied science courses – especially where Hmong city and suburban students actually work on family farms and landscape operations.

“We have made great progress on gender,” Ertl said, noting that young women are clearly the emerging leaders at school chapters, or clubs, and at regional and state levels of the FFA.

That was clearly evident when community newspapers reported on the annual state FFA convention and Career Development Event (CDE) competitions in April. The Sentinel Tribune at Walnut Grove proudly announced that Seng Xiong, Pahnia Vue, Zua Her, Shiney Her and Pakou Vue – all young women – were the state champion Dairy Foods team.

But wait a moment. Their classmates Abby Herding, Morgan Dennistoun, Elizabeth Woelber and Mariah Olson were named the Minnesota state champion Soils team.

My hometown newspaper, the Kerkhoven Banner, brought news the Kerkhoven-Murdock-Sunburg FFA chapter had ended Hutchinson’s three-year reign as the state’s top FFA chapter based on community service, chapter development and student development.

Other teams won competitive science events for Plainview-Elgin-Millville, Willmar, Pipestone, Windom, Caledonia, Gibbon-Fairfax-Winthrop, Morris, Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted, Fulda, Dassel-Cokato, Jackson County Central, Grand Meadow, Zumbrota-Mazeppa, and Randolph. Two teams from Grand Rapids captured state championships in Forestry and Fish and Wildlife Management.

This is what Jefferson thought Virginia needed to grow and prosper. A changing Minnesota does as well.

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