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Ag Education: Our Best Defense Against Ag Illiteracy

by Emma Hopkins

Published: Friday, March 17, 2017

For about as long as agriculture has been an industry, efforts have been made to educate those removed from the practice of growing and raising food. In modern times, one of the best ways to do this is through graduates from an agricultural education program.

One such graduate is Mallarie Stookey, who is a new agriculture teacher at Argos High School in Marshall County.

"There are so many different misconceptions about agriculture. My goal is to help educate the younger generations to eliminate the misconceptions and share the importance of agriculture," Stookey said. "Knowing that the students simply do not understand has driven me to stay within education. It fills me with pride to witness students get more interested in the industry as they gain more knowledge about agriculture."

Stookey graduated from Purdue University's Agricultural Education program in 2016. Both Purdue and Michigan State University have thriving agricultural education programs where students can train to become high school agricultural teachers, FFA advisors, Extension educators and other types of educators involved in the agricultural industry.

At Purdue, professors B. Allen Talbert and Jerry L. Peters lead the Agricultural Education (AGED) program. Indiana has 216 high school and middle school agricultural programs situated in roughly half of the schools in the state, all taught by agricultural teachers who have graduated from programs like AGED at Purdue. Talbert said by providing a consistent flow of graduates, Purdue's AGED program makes it easier for individual schools to decide to start or revive the teaching of agriculture in their classrooms.

"Our graduates are licensed to teach agriculture in grades 5 through 12," Talbert said. "If we have a large number of graduates, then principals, school boards and superintendents know that if they begin a program, they will have a qualified agriculture teacher with a Purdue education to teach it."

Peters added that elementary schools are benefitting from Indiana Farm Bureau's Ag in the Classroom program that teaches agricultural concepts to elementary school students.

"Right now we have about 7.4 billion people in this world, and by 2050 we will be looking at 9.5 billion, but at the same time, we only have so much land that can grow food," Peters said. "Who are those people who are going to be alive and making decisions in 2050? Those are the current elementary and middle school children. That is why this is so critical."

MSU's program is the Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources Education (AFNRE) major, housed in the Department of Community Sustainability. AFNRE, like Purdue's AGED program, has the goal of preparing educators for formal and non-formal learning environments. Matt Raven, the professor who coordinates the AFNRE program, said the major prepares students to meet a variety of sustainability education needs.

"AFNRE at MSU is an interdisciplinary major that provides students with an education that includes natural sciences, applied agricultural sciences, social sciences and pedagogy all within a context of sustainability," Raven said. "This uniquely positions them to develop educational programs, either formal or non-formal, that address the challenges society faces in producing food and fiber in way that considers environmental, economic and social equity concerns."

The AFNRE major has the general goal of giving graduates the tools they need to help increase the sustainability and resilience of communities. But a specific catalyst to the program's inception was the publication of the Michigan Good Food Charter in 2010. One of the six goals written into the charter was to equip Michigan schools with a curriculum that incorporates food and agriculture in pre-K through twelfth grade classrooms for all Michigan students. The AFNRE major was designed to achieve that goal.

"Sustainable agriculture and food systems provide a significant contribution to healthy communities," Raven said. "The Michigan Good Food Charter was published to help advance Michigan's food and agriculture system contributions to the economy, protection of natural resources, improve citizens' health and help Michigan youth thrive."

Both the AGED and AFNRE programs pride themselves on easily placing graduates into jobs right out of college.

"There is a high demand for agricultural science and business teachers both in Indiana and across the U.S.," Talbert said. "Ag education graduates are not only needed in the classroom, but many are highly sought after for positions in business, government and other professions where the ability to communicate and work with people is in demand."

Still, 70 percent of Purdue AGED students enter teaching positions after graduation. As teachers, a graduate's contribution to the public's understanding of agriculture extends through their FFA chapter. As FFA members, high schoolers can compete in agriculture-related competitions to increase their knowledge. FFA may also encourage high school graduates to pursue agriculture in college. Aside from those benefits, FFA chapters do a lot of advocating for agriculture in their communities and even around the world.

"Since 1999, the National FFA Convention has been held in either Indianapolis or Louisville, Ky., and for the next nine years it is going to be in Indianapolis," Peters said. "FFA youth from all over the United States, Japan, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands will also come to the convention."

Stookey said choosing to major in agricultural education is a good decision for anyone who enjoys spreading their passion of agriculture to others, but cautions that this career does take patience.

"You have so many different options within this career path," she said. "If you go into teaching, make sure you are prepared to be patient, repeat yourself, and be amazed by the passion that you will generate from today's youth."

Purdue and MSU strive to do their part to contribute to agricultural literacy from the roots and up, and they are well aware that the process of understanding often begins in a classroom.

"The country as a whole has to be able to analyze information about food and agriculture systems to determine what is credible and what is not credible," Raven said. "Our AFNRE students learn how to develop educational programs that teach their students how to think and not what to think."

Stookey said despite the energy needed to be a good agricultural teacher to all your students, those same students make the job worthwhile.

"The students make this career something to look forward to," she said. "They are the reason that I am a teacher. Of course, you will have your bad days, trouble students, and exhaustion, but at the end of the day, the good outweighs the bad. I know that a supportive community, families and school help to make an agriculture program successful and I am thankful to have all three."

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