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Opinion: Preparing students for agricultural-related careers

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On Dec. 3, 2020, ground was broken at the Darr Agricultural Center for a new magnet school focusing on agricultural education. The project is a joint effort among Springfield Public Schools, the Darr Family Foundation and Missouri State University. As faculty members in the Darr College of Agriculture at Missouri State, people have asked us several questions about the project, and one of the most frequent questions has been, “Why agriculture?”  

The value and importance of agricultural education programs cannot be overstated. At a time when the number of people involved in production agriculture is at an all-time low and public interest in where our food comes from is at an all-time high, agricultural education programs fill a critical need. 

In Missouri, there are 353 approved high school agricultural education programs with about 26,260 students enrolled. Many school districts offer variations of agricultural education instruction that fit the needs of the community. This includes junior high programs with 14,226 students statewide.

Food and fiber curricula 
Agricultural education programs comprise three main components: classroom instruction, supervised agricultural experience and leadership development. Curricular opportunities within the food, fiber and natural resources industry are nearly limitless and find success because they are putting science into application in an agricultural world. These courses build sequentially to offer students an education that prepares them for their next step after high school. Examples of courses include agricultural management/economics, animal science, agricultural construction, conservation and natural resources, food science and greenhouse operation/management.

Not only is what students learn in agriculture programs so valuable, but equally important is how agricultural education programs teach students these applied sciences. Take a greenhouse class, for example. Students not only learn how greenhouses operate, but also they take an active role in selecting the plants grown in the facility. They may choose bedding plants for an annual plant sale. They also may decide to start various vegetables for summer gardens. When learning about vegetable varieties, to ensure they select the right plants for the climate and soil conditions in their area, they explore high tunnels and raised garden beds. Throughout the process, students will spend time discussing what each decision means for profitability and long-term sustainability. Sometimes, other classes are brought into the mix, such as the agricultural business students to help when it comes to selling and marketing the plants.

Urban growth
While traditionally associated with rural districts, urban districts are seeing the value of agricultural education programs. In 2019, Hillcrest High School started offering agricultural opportunities for their students inside and outside of the classroom through new course offerings and its chapter of the National FFA Organization.

It is exciting to see agricultural education thriving here in our own community through Hillcrest and the new magnet school. While focusing on educating students on topics from plants to animals, there is hope that we can help them to comprehend the importance of protecting and conserving our natural resources, while utilizing them to meet the needs of a growing population in areas such as food security. 

According to the Springfield-Greene County Health Department, nearly 17% of local households are food insecure. There is a need for students to know and understand the importance of a safe, affordable and nutritional food supply, while creating opportunities for them to find careers needed to help ensure that we all have access to that food supply for years to come.

When thinking about the future of agricultural education in Springfield and throughout Missouri, there is inherent excitement. Who knows where this can take us?

Some of these opportunities may inspire the next generation of agriculturalists. But even if students pursue a different career path, each student in these programs will have a better understanding of how food and fiber are produced and how to care for our natural resources – an invaluable lesson indeed. 

Nichole Busdieker-Jesse and Christi Sudbrock are agribusiness faculty in the William H. Darr College of Agriculture at Missouri State University. They can be reached at nbusdiekerjesse@missouristate.edu and csudbrock@missouristate.edu.

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