Wendy Pratt: State funding boost for agricultural education long overdue

GUEST OPINION SCHOOLS

February 19, 2014 

I had the pleasure of attending seven roundtable meetings last fall throughout Idaho to brainstorm the future of agricultural education.

Each gathering of agriculture teachers, parents, student leaders, school administrators and private business owners started by noting the strengths of the current program. An impressive list emerged: It provides kids with a sense of community, teaches financial competency, provides real-world experience, gives hands-on students a place to succeed, etc.

Then we tackled the challenges and future needs of agricultural education, exploring the compelling question, “What if we could?” What we discovered was a vast slate of opportunities. Agriculture, with healthy cash receipts and a growing world population to feed, has never offered better career options. Industry lacks a skilled workforce trained to achieve results and anxious to do genuinely useful work. And as white-collar jobs are outsourced, the manual trades offer attractive wages and benefits.

In addition, education reform and the push to return to the “Common Core” dovetail with the pragmatic nature of agriculture courses. In the Department of Agriculture, students not only learn math, they apply it — to a livestock enterprise cash flow or a metal fabrication project. They not only learn English — they apply it through public speaking and parliamentary procedure.

And what came to the forefront at every roundtable, at every meeting, was the urgent need for more funding. Teachers are stretched thin trying to meet increasing demand for their curriculum. Monies to keep agriculture shops up to date and purchase supplies are sadly lacking and haven’t been increased since 1998. FFA, the student leadership component (the blue jacket), is growing and needs a full-time staff person. Many schools are without an agriculture program and would like one but lack the funds to start up. In addition, we face a grave agriculture teacher shortage that threatens the entire program’s viability.

The challenges seem insurmountable, but help is on its way. The Idaho Legislature is considering an Agriculture Education Initiative this session to address these funding shortfalls. It is a well-thought-out and conservative request that is long overdue.

I came to be an advocate for agricultural education through the backdoor when I married a man who was an agriculture teacher/adviser for a dozen years. I watched as unlikely students excelled in his program, which offered a range of classes from farm business management and animal science, to greenhouse experience and small-engine repair. I saw our own children excel as they went through the program and served as leaders in the FFA.

Perhaps in our zealousness to promote computer literacy and college prep courses, we have forgotten the value of teaching work ethic. The lessons learned planting a flat of petunias, using a helmet and safety gloves, repairing engines, running a meeting or caring for animals prepare kids for real-life careers. Let’s help our kids learn the value of doing, for in this doing real self-worth follows.

Supporting the Idaho Agriculture Initiative is the right thing to do for our children and for the state of Idaho.

Pratt is part of a four-generation ranching operation in Southeast Idaho.

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