agriculture through hands-on experiences
Agriscience programs across the country started in 1917.
Originally, they were for boys who grew up on farms – to learn
more about how to farm, to go back to help their dads when they
got out of high school.
In the 1950s, Connecticut decided to set up 19 regional
agricultural centers throughout the state so any student could
access one within a half hour of where they lived. Instead of
having a lot of high schools offer a little ag program, they
decided to have 20 really well done regional centers.
Our program in Woodbury has been around since 1920 and has
evolved from a handful of boys who grew up on farms to over 300
students – a third of the high school – from 20 different
surrounding towns, 10 of whom live on a farm. The majority of
the students come to our program interested in related
agricultural careers, such as floralculture, landscaping, horse
management, veterinary science and conservation of natural
resources, as well as animal science.
Last year we had 200 applications for 90 freshman spots, and
have a huge waiting list every year. The program has grown in
popularity over the last 10 or 15 years because students are
realizing that there are careers in agriculture that they can go
into, right in our state. They want to come to the program
because it gives them a competitive edge before they go on to
college to study it further.
Our program, as well as the other 19 agriscience programs
across the state of Connecticut, all have waiting lists. I think
it’s a statewide movement that people are realizing finally that
agriculture’s here to stay: It’s the number one industry in the
country, and it’s important to Connecticut’s economy. There are
so many jobs throughout our state, no matter where you are, that
have an agricultural base to them. And students can get that
competitive edge in high school.
I think the future of agriculture is very bright when you look
at those kinds of kids. Three quarters of our kids go on to
college; also 80 of our 300 students are in honors programs as
part of the high school. They take agriculture as their
elective, and they get career training.
We have a college fair every January, and kids come back and
tell their current students what they’re doing in college, and
how the program helped them. Every single one of them said our
program gave them that competitive edge: They get As in their
first two classes because they’ve had all the information
already in high school. And many professors look at them and
say, “How do you know all this already?”
The most popular courses in our school for the last four or
five years have been the horse management curriculum, the
conservation natural resources, and the floralculture and
landscaping curriculums. Veterinary science is gaining
popularity, and that can be branched into dog grooming careers,
animal research related careers. That’s another growing field.
Another part of our program is a supervised agricultural
experience. We have students work at outside locations. They
need to accumulate 200 hours in the school year outside of
school. They go out and practice what they’ve learned in a real
One of the best parts of the program is the FFA, which is the
leadership development portion. The students learn public
speaking skills, parliamentary procedure, teamwork skills,
interviewing skills, things that, no matter what they end up
doing, they’ll be more successful.
Broadening the definition of agriculture
Our program curriculum has changed over the years to address
the diversity of agriculture in our state. When it started, it
was production agriculture: The whole curriculum was dairy
farming, growing crops, etc. And now that’s about 10 percent of
what we do. We still have students interested in production
agriculture careers. They either move on to other states to find
a place where they can be a manager of a farm, or they become a
nutritionist for a dairy herd, those kinds of things.
But agriculture has changed and diversified to include so much
more than what people think of. You say agriculture, and you
think production agriculture and farming, which is great. It’s
the basis of our existence, and that’s what we need. However,
there are so many related areas: veterinarians, feed suppliers,
genetics, breeding, biotechnology, the list goes on. There are
some of the things we offer and entice kids to get interested in
so that they can pursue a career that can be right in our state.
Among our students who have production backgrounds, if they
grew up on a family farm then they are usually able to access it
and continue it on. But a lot of our students interested in
production agriculture don’t have any background, don’t have any
connections to help them find resources, to help them buy land
and start farming here. That’s why several of them have ended up
going out of state where there are just more farms to get a job
at, to work at as a herdsman or part owner.
Matching future farmers with farms
I think the ideal situation that we could make here is to hook
students up with the farms that have been preserved through the
farmland preservation program, farms whose owners may be ready
to retire but have no one to take over. We have this great pool
of talented students who want to continue the farming legacy,
and we have these great farms that are being preserved. We need
to hook the two together to continue producing food in our
I’d probably start working with the Department of Agriculture
to get the list of the preserved farms and have each of our ag
centers identify juniors and seniors who are willing to pursue
this, either after college or right after high school. Try to
work together to assemble those two lists and maybe do some
tours with our students at some of these preserved farms so they
can see that there is that option available to them so they
don’t have to leave the state and can continue to work the land.
When the students meet these farmers, the best thing we could
do is have someone like the First Farmer Credit, who is really
the farm credit system in the state (they’ve serviced many of
the farms), work as someone to help put these two put together
the financial parts of it. I think people like the Farm Credit
and Farm Bureau and all the organizations that have a stake in
this would want to come together, be able to make that match,
and help figure out all those questions financially.
I’ve known of times when a student went to work for a farm and
then, five or ten years later, owned part of the herd, and five
years later worked into being the owner. The key is getting
those people together and connecting that kid I have in Woodbury
who’s going to Coleskill, N.Y., this fall, and will probably end
up getting hired as a herdsman at a dairy farm out in New York
state. Instead, we should hook him up with someone in our state,
because he loves being here.
For the future of agriculture
In 1928 Future Farmers of America was founded. In 1988 the
national organization realized that the majority of their
students across the country would not be farmers; they would be
feed salesman, vets, florists, something related to farming but
not specifically farmers. So the national organization changed
its name to just FFA, to keep the letters and tradition. What
we’ve done here is adopted the idea of “For the Future of
Agriculture,” which I think the national FFA should really take
as their new definition, because it really encompasses
I think the future of agriculture in the state is what you’ve
seen happen in a lot of dairy farms already – diversification.
They’ve found that they need to do more than just produce milk
to make it happen here, so they go into vegetable stands, maple
syrup production, related things that they can do right there.
They bring people to the farm and have them see the place and
watch milk being made, and have ice cream storage right at the
farm to bring people back to where they can see farms.
Another popular area for the future is the green industry –
plant nurseries, florists, landscape design, landscape
construction, turf grass, golf courses. It’s all ag related.
It’s booming in our state, and there are and tons of careers for
our students to get into.
Also, the horse industry in Connecticut is huge. We are the
leading state in horses per square mile, or density of horses
right now, and a lot of people love to have horses. There are a
lot of training facilities, boarding facilities throughout the
state. This is agriculture because horses use the land for
pastures, and hay production is another avenue dairy farmers
turn to for diversification. Then there are the vets that take
care of the horses, and all the feed supplies, and vets
supplies, and tack. All those areas are ag related.