Ag education continues to thrive, evolve in Ohio

Buckeye Farm News

During his time in high school in Richland County years ago, Korre Boyer discovered he had a passion for agriculture. It came as a bit of a surprise since he lived in town and didn’t live or work on a farm. That interest eventually grew into a career, and Boyer said it was all because he got involved in vocational agriculture at his high school.

“I just loved it and my experiences there,” he said of his ag education classes. “I got into raising livestock on my cousin’s farm and lived it in high school.”

Boyer went on to get a bachelor’s degree in agriculture education and become an ag teacher for four years before joining Ohio Farm Bureau as organization director for Crawford, Marion, Morrow and Richland counties.

“Those agriculture classes played a big role in my career,” he said.

Boyer’s story helps illustrate the importance of high school agriculture education classes in a state with a rich and diverse farming industry. About half of Ohio’s 610 school districts offer agriculture education classes, and the program has 25,000 students and 550 teachers, said Steve Gratz, agriculture education consultant for the Ohio Department of Education.

“When I tell people that I teach ag education, a lot of times they think it’s a dying profession but that couldn’t be further from the truth. We’re adding programs in many counties and are going from farming to more science,” said Rose Hartshuh, an agriculture teacher in Huron County.

The size of Ohio’s agriculture education program has remained steady for the past six to eight years, Gratz said. Up until last year when the economic recession hit, the number of Ohio State University graduates getting teaching jobs in high school agriculture education programs remained high.

“Last year it dipped for the first time. We won’t know until the spring whether that number will spring back. But in general Ohio’s ag education numbers continue to be very strong,” said M. Susie Whittington, Ohio State associate professor of human and community resource development.

Over the past five years, the Ohio Department of Education has added or expanded agriculture education programs, Whittington said. Crawford County Farm Bureau was instrumental in helping bring agriculture education classes back to Buckeye Central Schools in New Washington. About 15 years ago the agriculture program ended when its teacher retired.

“This came basically from our Farm Bureau members and board members who felt strongly that we needed an ag program,” Boyer said. “Several people became vocal about there not being ag classes to take any more, and we started checking to see if there was the possibility to bring it back. The education department was very willing to help out and work with the local school board and community.”

Today, Buckeye’s agriculture education department has more than 40 students and is one of the stronger programs in the county, Boyer said. The vocational class offerings are diverse: animal science, production agriculture, horticulture, biosciences and woodworking.

“There’s been a bit more of a shift to sciences because agriculture isn’t just about raising livestock and crops. It’s far beyond that with biofuels and progressive scientific movements,” Boyer said. “It’s so much more than what agriculture was 10 years ago.”

Gratz agreed that today’s agriculture education classes are focusing more on science as agriculture continues to diversify. While vocational agriculture formally started in the United States with the Smith-Hughes National Vocational Education Act of 1917, most of Ohio’s schools were already teaching agriculture classes and many were science-based.

“Today we’re almost back to where we were at pre Smith-Hughes when agriculture was really taught as a science,” Gratz said.

Ag education continued to evolve with the Vocational Education Act of 1963, which expanded the role of vocational education and shifted the emphasis from agriculture production to agriculture business, Gratz said. He said today’s vocational education classes in Ohio focus on six main areas: food, science and technology; natural resource management; animal science management; plant and horticultural science; agriculture and industrial technologies; and biotechnology for food, plant and animal science.

Because agriculture education classes often involve hands-on learning, they are becoming more popular with students, Hartshuh said. She and two other agriculture teachers teach about 95 students at Bellevue High School.

“Hands-on learning helps students understand the concepts, and they might succeed in our class while not succeeding in other science classes,” she said. “We did a survey of why the students took the ag classes and most said it was because their friends said it was fun. Once you get them in the door, they have so much fun they don’t realize how much they’re learning.”

At Marlington High School in Stark County, hands-on learning is emphasized with students learning about horticulture and turfgrass management by working on a 1 ½ acre garden and greenhouse and a one-hole golf course built near the school’s horticulture building. Last year’s plant sale brought in $33,000, said John Hippley, who teaches landscaping and turfgrass management.

“The landscaping industry has really been growing, which is why we started offering landscaping classes seven or eight years ago. It seems like all the farms are being pushed out by development and we’ve tried to move with the times by offering landscaping and greenhouse classes. I think if schools are not willing to change with the times, they will lose their ag education classes,” said Hippley, a Farm Bureau member.

Some of the agriculture education coursework is rigorous enough to qualify for college credit, Gratz said. Hocking College in Nelsonville has agreements with more than two dozen high schools, allowing some high school classes to count as college credit, said Larry Coon, dean of Hocking’s School of Natural Resources. Coon’s department has about 1,100 students and offers 17 different types of natural resources degrees.

“The students who take ag education classes in high school often have an advantage over those who have to start off from scratch,” he said.

Lynn Snyder 

Lynn Snyder is senior director of communications for Ohio Farm Bureau.

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