Schools broaden agriculture role Adapting: A broader curriculum is being offered to students as the number of family farms declines.

March 16, 1998|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,SUN STAFF

Agricultural education in Maryland schools isn't sows, cows and plows anymore.

For generations, such courses revolved around life on the farm. But as the number of family farms declines, traditional training in livestock care and farm equipment repair has given way to courses that prepare students for careers in forestry, agribusiness, veterinary science -- even emerging fields such as aquaculture and biotechnology.

At South Carroll High School, for example, Rene Bonde studies floral design and plans to open her own flower shop. At Hereford High in Baltimore County, Jason Smith, an officer in the Future Farmers of America chapter, looks forward to a career in natural resources management.

"Agribusiness is the largest business segment in Carroll County," said Marjorie Lohnes, supervisor of career and technology education for Carroll County schools. "When you consider that's where the jobs are, you have to broaden your scope and have a bigger view of what agriculture is."

While many schools in the Baltimore metropolitan area have scaled back or eliminated their agriculture programs, high schools in Carroll and Frederick counties -- areas where agriculture remains viable despite rapid suburban development -- offer strong programs that have adapted to meet the needs of an increasingly diversified agriculture industry. The result has been expanded agricultural education offerings. In three years, Lohnes said, student enrollment in agricultural courses in Carroll schools has nearly tripled, from 394 to 1,006.

Baltimore County has seen a steady rise in interest in its agricultural education classes, with courses concentrated in the middle and high schools in the semirural Hereford area.

"Unfortunately the number of openings in production agriculture -- the people that are actually out there milking cows -- is decreasing, but there are other opportunities that are opening up," said Steve Connelly, executive director of the Maryland Agricultural Education Foundation, a nonprofit group that works to improve public knowledge of agriculture.

Schools began revamping agricultural education programs about 10 years ago because of dropping enrollment in traditional agriculture courses.

"We just weren't getting the production farm students anymore, so we had to offer courses that were more representative of the agriculture industry and not just production classes," said Tom Hawthorne, an agriculture teacher at Linganore High School in Frederick County .

"I think the public thinks of agriculture as just farming, but it's a vast industry involving lots of occupations," said Hawthorne, who's heading a statewide effort to update agricultural education sponsored by the National Council for Agricultural Education.

New courses have attracted students from nonfarming backgrounds, like Vallie Lewis, a senior at Francis Scott Key High School near Uniontown in Carroll County, who plans to study environmental science in college.

She's taking a wildlife management class and is signed up for forestry in the spring. Although she's taken other agriculture courses, Lewis has mainly followed a college preparatory curriculum.

"The thing I like is it's lots of hands-on work," Lewis said of the wildlife management course. "We go out in the greenhouse and work with plants, make up field guides and research specific animals."

The movement of agricultural education beyond the farm reflects widespread and fast-moving changes occurring in agriculture-related businesses, including food processing, crop protection and nutrient management, said Laurie Adelhardt, a special assistant to Maryland's secretary of agriculture.

Nationwide, Adelhardt said the labor shortage in agricultural and natural resource management is 11 percent. People with backgrounds in soil science to help farmers develop nutrient management plans are needed in Maryland, she said.

In Baltimore County, a group of agriculture education supporters, including farmers, greenhouse operators and cooperative extension officials, met in January with school Superintendent Anthony G. Marchione to stress the importance of maintaining the agriculture program at Hereford High.

"Agriculture is taking a pounding," said Louis Ensor, a Phoenix cattle and grain farmer who helped to organize the group. "We felt like we owed it to future generations that wanted to get interested in agriculture."

Despite the transformation in agriculture education during the past decade, misconceptions and stereotypes remain.

Last month, members of the FFA chapter at Hereford High School hung a poster in the lobby to mark national FFA month. Students later found the poster, which said "Building Our Future," had been defaced. "Building" was crossed out and replaced with "milking," and "hick" was written in the corner.

"It just angers me a lot," said Smith, 18, a senior at Hereford. "People think of farmers as dirty hillbillies, but they're not. They probably work twice as hard as other people do, and don't get jTC the recognition."

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