As types of agriculture jobs change, ag education moves into more populated areas
Shortage of agriculture teachers
Jay Jackman, executive director of the National Association of Agricultural Educators, said there are several hundred ag education positions that go unfilled every year. Many of the jobs that get filled are filled by under-qualified teachers. According to the National FFA Organization, an ag teacher shortage is the biggest challenge facing not only the FFA, but agricultural education as a whole. Twenty-three percent of the 11,000 FFA advisers and agriculture teachers within the organization have been teaching for five years or less.
With a younger, less experienced workforce comes additional challenges, Jackman said. Not only are there shortages now, but since younger generations tend to switch careers more often, Jackman said recruitment will continue to be an issue in the future.
FFA by the numbers
Total national members in 2013: 579,678
Total national members now: 629,327
73 percent in rural and farm areas
27 percent in urban and suburban areas
Since 2014, nearly 100 new FFA chapters have started across the country.
In urban and suburban areas, where tractors are relics and corn comes from the grocery store, agricultural education programs are gaining popularity.
It’s not because of the illustrious jobs on the farm — those are hard to come by these days. It’s not because of a surplus of teachers — hundreds of ag education positions go unfilled every year.
According to Jay Jackman, executive director of the National Association of Agricultural Educators, enrollment in ag programs is on the rise in urban areas because the possibilities within agriculture are changing and so is the curriculum.
“Agriculture is not limited to traditional crop production and livestock production,” Jackman said. “As people begin to recognize that agriculture is so much more than traditional farming and ranching, obviously, agriculture begins to expand.”
Now, career opportunities in ag include nursery crop production, small-scale organics, aquaculture, hydroponics, floriculture and even professions such as golf course management. As this landscape changes, so does the interest level in the industry.
Though the numbers for enrollment in agriculture education programs are hard to track since they vary from school to school, enrollment in 4-H and FFA programs is a good indicator, Jackman said. FFA enrollment in the U.S. since 2013 has increased by almost 50,000 kids, according to the National FFA Organization. Across the country, about a quarter of FFA participants live in urban or suburban areas.
In Weld County, 4-H enrollment stayed steady in the past several years, after increasing about five years ago, said Keith Maxey, director of Weld County Extension. About 1,000 Weld County youth are enrolled in the 4-H programs in the county.
Maxey said he is seeing more urban kids get involved in agriculture and 4-H because they’re seeing more chances for projects that don’t necessarily involve raising an animal. He thinks, in general, ag education is on the rise because people are becoming more interested in seeing where their food comes from and having a hand in the process.
The variety in agriculture, and in ag education, is important for the generations who aren’t going to inherit a family farm. Since there are high financial barriers to production ag, including land, livestock and equipment costs, fewer people are able to make the jump straight into traditional farming and ranching. Even if the startup cost wasn’t so high, technology makes it easier for fewer farmers to do more, so there’s less opportunity in the field, Jackman said.
Another huge driver for the uptick in ag education interest is the ability to tie the curriculum to STEM learning, or science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Jackman said it’s easier to reach students by applying lessons to hands-on ideas.
For example, if a student isn’t able to connect with biology by the textbook, he or she may be able to understand it better when they’re seeing photosynthesis as it applies to a crop they’re growing, Jackman said. They may not learn from dissecting a frog, but they can get that same lesson from raising a calf.
It’s all about changing the way the ag program is handled, Jackman said. The more a program can be geared toward agribusiness and agriscience, the more kids it will draw in, he said.
“If you have a school that’s still treating their agriculture education program as vocational education from the 1970s, they’re not going to see as much growth,” Jackman said. “Where the jobs are is where our emphasis needs to be in our instructional programs.”
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I want to address a couple of issues in this week’s editor’s note.