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At a Pueblo County middle school, students plant roots in agriculture

Gayle Perez | The Pueblo Chieftain
Lindsey McCurry, 13, a seventh grade student at Vineland Middle School, fills seed planters with soil in the greenhouse outside the school on Jan. 7, 2016.
John Jaques,The Pueblo Chieftain |

PUEBLO — Students at a Pueblo County middle school are digging into a new academic program that educators are hoping will reap benefits down the road for the agricultural industry.

“We’re losing a lot in agriculture when kids today don’t even know where eggs come from,” said Vineland Middle School teacher Stacy Bustos. “When they think that produce just comes from the grocery store, I think we need to do more to educate them about agriculture.”

Bustos, a math teacher and agricultural enthusiasts, pitched an idea enthusiastically accepted by Principal Sandy Gibbs three years ago to teach a basic agricultural class at the eastern Pueblo County school.

The idea has sprouted into a full-fledged certified Ag program with Bustos now teaching four general Ag classes along with courses in ecology and green architect.

“I started out teaching one class of 23 students but quickly found out that more kids wanted to get into Ag. I thought, ‘Let’s get certified and open as full-fledged program,’” she said.

Bustos said it was natural for such a program at Vineland, where the school building is surrounded by an agriculture environment of farms, ranches and commercial greenhouses.

The Ag curriculum, purchased with assistance from the Farm Bureau, focuses on teaching about different careers in agriculture, to writing resumes and farming and cultivating.

Bustos said it was no surprise when the certified program rolled out this past fall that the classes filled quickly.

“I had kids and parents calling even before we knew what classes I would be teaching wanting to get in the program,” Bustos said. “I was pleasantly surprised at the level of interest.”

Eighth-grader Bryce Singletary said he started taking the Ag class as a sixth-grader and is currently enrolled in three classes.

“I like agriculture. It’s a part of my family and something I enjoy doing and something I actually want to do in the future,” he said.

Bryce said he’s progressed from planting seeds as sixth-grader to actually designing and planting a flower garden at the school, planting and harvesting potatoes to raising chicks.

“I’ve learned a lot because I’ve grown up in farming, but the classes here are teaching me a lot more about agriculture. I’m learning more taking these classes than I would if I were taking a gym class or some other elective.”

Bustos’ classroom mirrors the rich farming community that surrounds Vineland with vegetable garden and flower plants adorning the windowsills, cages bearing chinchillas, birds and hermit crabs, and a large wooden chicken coop being as much a part of the furniture as the students’ desks.

Daily lessons revolve around the classroom plants and animals and what’s new in agricultural news and instruction is delivered in a hands-on, learn-as-you go environment.

“I think that’s what gets the students so interested in the program is the hands-on part of it,” Bustos said. “They get to see the plants from planting to germination to raising of the vegetables. They get to see the eggs hatch into chicks and then watch those chicks grow.”

The chicks are being raised in a coop purchased by the students through proceeds raised in the student-run “Ag Store” and built by members of Bustos’ green architect class.

This spring, the students will begin raising their own tilapia while growing lettuce in a specifically designed tank designed and constructed by eighth-grade student Tanner Houghton.

Tanner designed the tank so the fish fertilize the lettuce plants and in turn the plants filter the water.

In addition to the hands-on part of the program, students also learn about the economics of agriculture and current affairs in the industry.

“We read news articles and talk about cattle and sheep prices,” Bustos said. “We discuss what’s going on in agriculture and the kids do research and then debate the topics.”

All students are also assigned to “ag committees” where they are responsible for a certain aspect of program ranging from caring for and cleaning the animal cages to ordering food and supplies, watering plants.

The students also operate the Ag Store with proceeds used to purchase supplies and pay for field trips.

Bustos said what she likes most about the program is that it has appeal to both the male and female students.

“We have a lot of girls who are very active in farming and want to pursue agriculture as a career,” she said. “They are knee-deep in the mud planting. We are in the process of starting a worm bed and the girls are right in the middle of it.”

With Vineland’s Ag program now certified, Bustos started a Future Farmers of America chapter with the first members installed this fall.

Bustos said support from several local organizations has helped boost the program in terms of curriculum materials and classroom supplies.

“There have been many of our agricultural families and community partners that have stepped up to help support our program. Without that support, we couldn’t do all the things that we are doing,” Bustos said. “Ag is our foundation, it’s how we live our lives, it’s our history,” Bustos said. “If we don’t get out to advocate for it, we’re going to lose it.” ❖




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