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Ag Education Is More than Cows, Plows and Sows

June 03, 2010 By John Fitzgerald, Education Policy Fellow

It's no secret that the Twin Cities suburbs have consumed a lot of farmland, and that small family farms are giving way to bigger operations run by fewer farmers. It would follow that K-12 agriculture education should also be on the decline, but nothing could be farther from the truth. While times have changed and the agriculture education your father and mother received is not the same offered today, ag education is as strong as ever.

Until recently, nearly everyone studying agriculture was male and the only courses offered were in the basics of farming. "When people think of ag education, they think of the red barn and the bib overalls and the pitchfork, but that's not what it's like today," said Peter Neigebauer, an instructor at South Central Community College in North Mankato.

"We're more than cows, plows and sows," said Christa Williamson, the ag teacher in the Kirkhoven-Murdock-Sundberg school district.

Ag education relevancy has come through demand and necessity. The demand for the same type of ag education offered in the 1970s is gone, said Joel Larsen, a longtime leader with the state's Future Farmers of America. What used to be classes in the business of maintaining and selling crops and animals has given way to classes in horticulture, natural science, wildlife, economics and animal husbandry.

"We don't have to teach kids how to farm," Williamson said. "Now it's science, math and engineering. We use a lot of hands-on learning techniques to teach with a common language that relates to other subjects like science and economics. For example, in my ag class I show kids how photosynthesis works firsthand."

It is part of creating an aggressive, engaging agriculutre program to teach students real-world context to the science and business of farming.

"Fewer than 50 percent of my students will go into agriculture, but they still want to know about agriculture," said Williamson. Agriculture literacy is missing, she added. "Kids think they know how food gets to the table, but they don't. Ag education has stayed viable because we have become more recognized as providing academic knowledge of the science of agriculture."

While the number of students using ag education to run a farm is going down, the number of students interested in agriculture is not, Larsen said. The number of K-12 ag students in Minnesota has remained at about 25,000 for the last 10 years, and FFA membership has stayed at about 9,000 members.
That's not odd, Neigebauer said.

"Only 1.5 million out of 300 million Americans are directly involved in agriculture. But if you look at agribusiness, almost 20 percent of the population is involved with agribusiness in some degree. In Minnesota, you have Cargill and Land-O-Lakes and General Mills, as well as transportation and processing and other businesses. Agribusiness is the second largest employer in Minnesota, behind manufacturing. Agribusiness is very important to Minnesota."

Ag education used to be a male-dominated area, but no longer. Classes run about 60 percent male and 40 percent female, Larsen said, with FFA leadership about 60 percent female. "Think about it. There's nothing that says a woman can't do the same job as a man," he said.

Ag education has used this relevance to weather a decade of education underfunding. The state has cut an inflation-adjusted 14 percent from education since 2003, forcing teacher layoffs and program cuts. Like other electives, ag education has been caught in the crosshairs.

"We're an easy place to cut," Williamson said, but combining required science or economics credits with ag education makes sense in many districts, and it has kept many ag educators employed.

But that doesn't mean they're not being downsized. The most effective ag education occurs during the summer, Williamson said, so many ag teachers are employed on extended 12-month contracts for the equivalent pay of nine months. Some districts cut funds by trimming back on ag educators' contract hours.

Williamson said teachers take it in stride. "The kids get less of an education, but it's better than no ag education at all. Teachers on the whole have a real can-do attitude, whether it's working all weekend or buying supplies out of their own pockets. We'll do what it takes to educate our students."

Agriculture must remain a strong component of Minnesota education. It's a subject that easily translates into a variety of other subjects and provides Minnesota's children with the background they need to succeed in the 21st century. The need for quality ag education is obvious. Even in the face of financial turmoil, we must ensure our children receive it.

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