Saturday, November 21, 2015

More Ag Teachers Needed in New York State

Another of my stories from the December issue of Empire Farm & Dairy magazine:

Empire Farm & Dairy

Agriculture is a growing industry in the United States.

And along with that, agriculture education is also expanding.

Studies done in 2015 by Purdue University in Indiana and the U.S. Department of Agriculture show that agriculture and food production is a growing field in need of workers. 

The study shows close to 60,000 jobs being created each of the five years through 2015 in the agriculture, food and natural resource sectors and there are not enough workers to fill these jobs.

A study by the International Association of Students in Agricultural and Related Sciences says more food will be needed by 2050 to feed earth’s increasing population, which means more people with expertise in agriculture will be needed.

To meet that need, the U.S. must churn out more ag teachers to help middle schools and high schools get students interested and involved in the field early on.

That is happening in various spots around New York state, including the north country. During the 2014-15 school year, students at the Northwest Technical Center at the St. Lawrence-Lewis BOCES resurrected its FFA chapter after an eight-year absence. The BOCES center now offers two full years of agriculture education and FFA.

“We adhere to the three-circle model of agriculture education,” said Northwest Technical Center ag teacher Patricia Gilbert. “FFA, classroom instruction and SAE (Supervised Agriculture Experience).”

Gilbert said all three components equip students with the basics of agricultural education along with leadership skills, planning skills and management skills.

Numerous national magazines and publications have published stories in the past year about the increase in popularity of ag education throughout the country.

And ag jobs aren’t just running a dairy or crop farm. Job titles are many and diverse, ranging from forestry (including maple production, forest management and logging), horticulture (including floral design, landscaping and greenhouses), sales of seed, feed and farm equipment, food production, food nutrition research, food safety, farm equipment maintenance, veterinarians and vet assistants, animal nutrition, soil management and alternative energy sources.   

“No longer just about cows and plows, the modern agriculture industry encompasses subsectors such as urban forestry and agricultural biotechnology, which includes the genetic engineering of crops,” stated a recent story in U.S. News and World Report. “As the industry has grown, so has the interest in teaching teens more about it.”

This is exactly what Gilbert is doing.

The first year of the Northwest Tech program is about forestry. She said students learn about forest ecology, chainsaw safety, harvesting, anatomy and physiology of trees, tree identification, Christmas tree management and managing a sugarbush.

“I have quite a few students who want to go on to Paul Smith’s (College) or the Wanakena Ranger School (SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry) for forestry studies,” Gilbert said.

Alyssa Gagnon, 17, a senior at Madrid-Waddington Central School in St. Lawrence County, is a member of the Northwest Tech FFA and attended the FFA national convention in Louisville, Ky. in October. 

She is looking at a conservation or forestry management career, possibly with the state Department of Environmental Conservation, and plans to attend Paul Smith’s College in Paul Smiths, Franklin County.

“At first, I was skeptical about joining FFA, because I play sports and it’s hard to keep up with everything,” she said. “But I’ve met so many people and learned so much — communications skills, leadership and through the classes, I’ve done maple syrup tapping, working with the DEC on projects, ran a chainsaw and learned over 40 types of trees and why they grow where they do.”

“It’s opened my eyes to what the world really is,” Gagnon said of FFA and her ag education.

About 15 percent of the U.S. workforce works in agriculture-related careers, according to statistics from the American Farm Bureau Federation. 

Gilbert said the big draw to FFA and ag classes in school is the hands-on experience the students receive. Gagnon said she never would have had the chance to tap a maple tree or operate a chainsaw if not for FFA and her ag classes.

Shayla Peters, a senior at Vernon-Verona-Sherrill High School in Oneida County and president of the V-V-S FFA chapter, said she had the chance to experiment with grains to find out which ones are digested best by cows. She put grains into the first stomach of a cow and was able to compute the rate of digestion of the various grains she tried by testing through a blood-sugar monitor.

This was especially interesting to Peters, who wants to study dairy management at Morrisville State College leading to a career as a livestock nutritionist or dairy feed sales consultant.

Of course, a problem with starting ag education classes or FFA chapters is money. In these days of school budget cuts and scaling back on programs, education about agriculture at times seems to be something kids can do without.

But can it?

The National Association of Agricultural Educators has stated students in ag programs and FFA not only learn about agriculture and ag careers, but also step deeply into STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) fields and also expand their English concepts.

Jay Jackman, the association’s executive director, said students are able to put the math and science they learn to use when studying agriculture.

“Rigor without relevance is just noise,” he said. “If a student takes algebra, he learns the phythagorian theorum. But put him into an ag mechanics class, and now he uses A-squared plus B-squared equals C-squared to square a frame on a door or put a roof on a barn. It’s meaningful to the student.”

Jacksman said students use chemistry, biology, language arts and math in their hands-on agriculture classes.

“We make it meaningful for them,” Jackman said. “Agriculture education enhances their understanding of math and science.”

There are a few colleges in New York that offer agriculture education teaching degrees. Cornell University and Ithaca College recently joined forces to offer a Master of Arts in Teaching program to help meeting the growing demand for qualified agriculture teachers. The first group in this new program will begin classes in May 2016.

SUNY Oswego also offers a master’s in education degree with a major in agricultural education.

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