When Jeff Plumb began working as an agriculture teacher in Haxtun High School on Colorado’s eastern plains, he thought he’d maybe stay for a few years until he found another job.
Fifteen years later, as the profession faces difficulty in keeping ag teachers longterm, Plumb is still teaching at the same school, and he says he hopes to help new teachers find the same love for their job.
“I’m willing to step up and take a little time out of my day to help someone who is the same person I was 15 years ago,” he said of mentoring newcomers.
Kellie Enns, an assistant professor of agricultural education at Colorado State University, said the biggest issue the profession is facing is a dwindling number of teachers who stay in their positions longterm, an issue she said has been plaguing the profession for 15 years.
And without stability in the ag teacher position, she said, schools and communities often miss out on the benefits of a good high school ag program.
“When an ag teacher leaves, it’s felt beyond the school because our ag programs are essential to the community, too,” said Enns, who worked as an ag teacher for nine years before earning her doctorate and taking over her current position training other teachers at CSU.
Weld County resident Kenton Ochsner, Colorado’s state FFA adviser, said the agriculture industry is growing and doing very well, in general, so there’s no shortage of industry jobs that pay well.
Ochsner, who taught at Platte Valley High School’s ag program in Kersey, said students who graduate with an ag education degree are well-rounded and well-versed in agricultures, and companies often seek them out, offering much better salaries than most high school ag programs do.
“We can’t change what the industry provides, and we can’t change how much money the salaries at schools offer,” Ochsner said. “But what we can change is the philosophy of our students who are graduating.”
Enns said that out of her last graduating class, two-thirds went into the ag industry instead of teaching.
“(Graduates) know a lot about the whole industry, so they’re going to get tapped, and we know that,” she said. “We just don’t know how to combat it.”
Together with other organizations, CSU and the state FFA organization have taken several steps to address the lack of ag teachers in the state, one of which is a $3.3 million Center for Agricultural Education to be built on CSU’s Agricultural Research, Development and Education Center north of Fort Collins.
The center will feature a customized library and specialized technology, along with teaching and office space and an exhibit for the FFA’s Colorado Agriculture Hall of Fame. Enns said the hope is that the center will give students hands-on, classroom experience and top-of-the-line technology to work with.
“That way we can better prepare teachers to do a better job, and if they’re happy, and will stay in the profession longer,” she said.
The program is about $250,000 short of its goal for the building, but Enns said she’s confident community members will continue to step in.
“I think people understand the importance of the project and understand our dreams,” she said. “They’ve come in great force to support it.”
Enns said CSU is working closely with teachers to tag students who they think would make good ag teachers, and she asks ag teachers to identify potential replacements when they leave. She said she’s noticed some positive outcomes from those efforts.
The ag education program at CSU will also target students who have graduated with other degrees, offering them the option of a post-bachelor license.
“That’s been increasing numbers in the last few years of our program,” Enns said.
Plumb said when he started in Haxtun, the community fully embraced him and the program, but he knows not all first-year teachers enjoy that same benefit.
He, Enns and Ochsner said it’s crucial to help new teachers through their first few years in order to keep them in the long run.
It’s also important to find the right match between new teachers and programs.
“It’s like a marriage,” Enns said. “You gotta find the right fit.”
Through the FFA’s Blue Jacket Society, Enns said students are already earning scholarships and some signing bonuses when they take ag teaching jobs.
Ochsner and Enns said while there were many years when people seemed to be oblivious to agricultural production, people are showing much more interest in where their food comes from and how it’s grown. While most people are three generations removed from the farm, they said people are still very much connected with agriculture.
“I look at that as a neat opportunity for the agriculture industry to educate the consumer on what we do and how we do things,” Ochsner said.
Plumb, who grew up on the Western Slope showing livestock in 4-H and FFA, said he’s seen the number of ag programs growing back up, and now, it’s a matter of finding the right teachers to fill those positions.
“I think communities are starting to see the important of an ag ed program, and there’s more and more programs each year,” he said. “We don’t seem to be growing at the same rate that the program numbers are growing.”
He said he’s hopeful that efforts like those on the part of CSU, the FFA and others involved will help fill that gap.
For Plumb, it’s really the students who make him want to stay in agriculture education. He said there’s nothing better than seeing a student have an “aha moment,” as he put it.
“I think another thing that keeps you going is having some of those students come back years later and say, ‘Thank you. I appreciate you doing this for me,’” he said.
Plumb said he understands that students who graduate with agriculture education degrees will have no problem finding higher paying jobs outside the education field, but he hopes to convey to them all of the added bonuses that come with being an ag teacher, benefits that you can’t necessarily measure monetarily.
“You’re also getting paid in something that’s bigger than money,” he said. ❖