Friday, November 18, 2005

The Return Of Cows And Plows

Agriculture is making a much-welcomed comeback in some high schools:
Erin Shevlin doesn't live on a farm but would like to run a small one someday. And the 16-year-old thanks her school with helping plant that seed.

Valmeyer [Illinois] High School's agriculture classes aren't just about cows, sows and plows. Instead, students tend to poinsettias, work in a vineyard and help run the school's moneymaking fish breeding operation.

"You learn a lot more than just how to scoop poop," said Shevlin, a junior. "This is not like a normal class where you just read a book. You actually get to work and feel like you're doing something."

To boost ag enrollment, schools have broadened curriculum well beyond what it takes to milk a cow. Classes now include hands-on instruction on topics from greenhouse operations to landscaping, floral design, animal health and biotechnology.

The effort appears to be paying off. Enrollment in Illinois' high school ag programs is 26,488 -- the highest it's been since the early 1970s and up from 11,733 just 15 years ago, said Dean Dittmar, a state coordinator of agricultural education.

It's a trend that's reflected in the 490,000-student membership of the National FFA Organization -- its highest in more than two decades.

The 77-year-old group was ahead of the curve in 1998 when it changed its name from Future Farmers of America after recognizing that agriculture involves more than 300 careers, ranging from agriscience to biotechnology to turf grass management.

Some of the change may be tied to the shrinking of America's farmland as urban sprawl slowly gobbles up crop fields. Between 1997 and 2002, according to the Department of Agriculture, the number of U.S. farms has dropped to 2.1 million, down about 87,000.

To keep current, schools including Valmeyer High have added greenhouses, and offered math and science credit for agriculture courses.

"It shows the community that you're just not sitting back and doing the same old, same old," said Howard Heavner, Valmeyer High's ag teacher and the town mayor.

The high school's two greenhouses have raised $27,000 a year in plants often sold to churches and local markets, with about half of the money kept as profits. Students keep 20 percent of what they peddle, rewarding their salesmanship.

"We call this the 'Green Thumb Co-op,"' Heavner said. "The kids view this as theirs."

Valmeyer students also work the school's 18 fish tanks, packed with thousands of bass, tilapia, bluegill and catfish eventually sold to other schools or for restocking ponds.

The greenhouses and fish generate more than $30,000 for the school, making the ag program largely self-sufficient, Heavner said. Profits go to advertising or are reinvested in the operations, sometimes used to buy grapes for the school's small vineyard.

Along the way, Heavner's students are shucking stereotypes.

"People are understanding this isn't just for farmers," said Heavner's son Andrew, a 17-year-old junior. "You don't have to work with steers, pigs and hogs."
Somehow, it makes me feel good just knowing that kids out there are still interested in learning how to earn a living off the land.

Simply put: Farming and other forms of agriculture make civilization possible. That's why I've always believed that being an actual working (as opposed to one of those large "corporate" agribusinesses) family farmer is one of the noblest callings that one can aspire to.

When I was a young KidWonk, I remember reading this on a bumper sticker: "If you complain about farmers, don't talk with your mouth full." It's hard to argue with that.

Food for thought.
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