Future farmers learn from books and barn

Practical experience adds to what textbooks offer

October 12, 2003|By Lane Harvey Brown | Lane Harvey Brown,SUN STAFF

A typical day in North Harford High finds agriculture program students feeding animals, cultivating nursery plants, drawing up agribusiness marketing plans and making floral arrangements to sell to the public.

At the Pylesville school's barn one morning last week, several students with agricultural aspirations were gathered, talking about the daily work they do feeding and studying the cows, goat, geese, alpaca, horses and sheep, as well as a pregnant pig due to give birth in the winter.

"You get to work with the animals, not just read about them in a book," said senior Catherine Perdue, 17, who plans to study veterinary medicine.

North Harford and Harford Technical in Bel Air are the two county high schools that offer agricultural studies, but the working barn at North Harford is one of the things that makes the school's program unique in the county and the state.

While 20 of 24 Maryland counties have agriculture programs, state education officials say, only a handful have working farms, and few have the variety of livestock at North Harford.

Enrollment in agricultural programs has increased about 80 percent in the past 10 years in public high schools, leveling off in the past few years to about 4,500 students statewide, said Jeffrey P. Lucas, a career and technology education program manager with the Maryland State Department of Education.

With agriculture among the top industries in the state, the drive to promote agricultural careers and keep programs on track with the changing industry is keen, education officials say.

"It's not your old traditional farming image of agriculture," said Rhonda Hoyman, supervisor of technical programs for Baltimore County schools, where agriculture programs are offered at Hereford middle and high schools, and a traveling agriscience lab visits elementary schools.

Today, agriculture is a broad brush that includes environmental science, hydroponics, aquaculture, horticulture, biotechnology and animal science.

Keeping the programs on track with the changing industry takes strong partnerships with local members of the farming and agribusiness community.

Veterinarians, mechanics and horticulturalists share the latest trends and technologies with classes. Farmers hire students to learn first-hand about beef and dairy businesses.

"The North Harford program is actually an employment base for us that we depend on," said David Thompson, owner of Foxborough Nurseries in Street. He said he has eight or nine workers who graduated from the high school.

He said he works with teachers when projects come up at the nursery where students can help. For example, horticulture classes help when seedlings arrive and need potting or transplanting, he said, and in exchange, his business buys needed equipment for the program, or makes a cash donation.

Thompson is also a member of the agriculture advisory board that works closely with the school system to help shape the program's direction. He said the school's planned $38 million renovation in the next few years will give agricultural studies a significant boost.

"There's no question it's going to be quite a high-tech ag program," he said, noting planned computer workstations and a retail center where classes can sell plants to the public.

County agriculture students can soon extend their learning at Harford Community College. In the spring, HCC is kicking off an agribusiness program.

The field has become so varied and sophisticated that people interested in farming need mechanical, sales and business skills, said James Mason, HCC's program assistant for educational studies. "Today you have to have all those skills," he said. "You don't just go out and plant corn."

In the 1950s, when North Harford opened, that kind of traditional farming was more the focus. The working farm was so large that the school employed a farm manager. By the time teacher Ronnie Martin arrived in the mid-1990s, much of the program had been let go.

Even the greenhouse wasn't being used, save for storing a handful of spider plants, she said.

Today, the school has three agriculture teachers, two full-time and one part-time, and budgets bolstered in large part by the business-minded instructors - Martin, who oversees horticulture and landscaping; Holly Amos, who teachers floral design; and Kim Lewis, who oversees the animal science program. All three grew up on dairy farms and graduated from North Harford.

They've built the program into what it is today, and invest lots of time to cultivate plants and care for animals.

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