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High school programs support state agriculture
Young people can get a competitive edge in agricultural careers

Connecticut has 20 agricultural education centers in high schools located throughout the state. Bill Davenport runs one of these centers in Woodbury, Conn. The program is increasingly popular, with a waiting list of freshman every year, supplying a substantial cohort of young people looking for in the state’s increasingly diversified agricultural sector, from farming to floraculture, horse management and veterinary science. Davenport would like to see that state develop a way to hook production agriculture students up with farmers who are ready to retire or have had their farmland preserved so that young people don’t have to leave the state to work the land.      (CONTINUED BELOW)

Bill Davenport

Dir. of Agriscience & Technology

Nonnewaug High School

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Teaching about 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 business situation.

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 state.

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 everything we.

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.

Copyright 2008 SimonPure Productions, LLC

Working the Land: The Story of Connecticut Agriculture
is a Co-Production of
SimonPure Productions and Connecticut Humanities Council

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