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8:29 am
Mon August 31, 2009

Agriculture Education in Iowa

Lee County, IA – Teachers used to stress the importance of the three R's: Reading, Writing, & Arithmetic.

The focus, now, is on a core curriculum. That is basically the three R's and a couple of S's: Science and Social Studies.

For some students, it is the elective classes that really prepare them for the rest of their lives especially those interested in agriculture.

The months of July and August can mean many things: barbeques, swimming, & baseball games.

Ask a farm kid what these months mean and they will tell you something different. To them, the summer months mean the county fair.

The livestock shows at the Lee County Fair are among its most popular events.

One of Emily Krogmeier's dairy cows earned reserve champion this year. The 18-year-old from West Point, IA enjoys competing at the fair because agriculture has always been a part of her life.

"Ever since I have been able to walk," says Krogmeier, "I have been outside feeding bottle calves. Now, I milk cows and haul silage all that fun stuff."

Krogmeier's work on her parents' dairy farm is just part of her preparation for the future. She enhanced her day-to-day personal experience with a few agriculture-related classes at Holy Trinity High School and through participation in the local "4-H"

The class options available to Krogmeier, though, were limited by tight budgets and her school's need to focus on core courses.

Alan Spencer is with the Iowa Department of Education and the Iowa FFA Association. He says Iowa's ag teachers are finding ways to work around those limitations, such as becoming certified in science courses.

"At least in biological science or physical science," says Spencer, "which would allow them to line up their classes with science standards. That way students could receive science credit for an agriculture class."

Spencer says around 16,000 students in Iowa have lined up their schedules, this year, to take at least one agriculture-related course. He says there are 230 high school agriculture education programs in Iowa, from limited offerings in rural districts to a centralized program for all Des Moines high schoolers.

Spencer says what students will learn this year has changed a lot since the 1980's.

"During the farm crisis," says Spencer, "we figured out that we needed to diversify a bit better and embrace some other areas of agriculture instead of only the production side of it. Because there are fewer and fewer people who are directly involved in production agriculture raising cattle, hogs, corn, and soybeans."

The shift in philosophy is not the only change to have taken place in Iowa schools.

Tom Boeck teaches agriculture for underclassmen at Central Lee High School. He says, during his 25 years on the job, the farm background of students has changed.

"25 years ago, a majority of students were on operating farms," says Boeck, "but today, a small percentage are on a farm. Many have an aunt, uncle, grandma, or grandpa who operate a farm. They love the farm and they love the life."

Boeck says that has actually led to an increase in participation in agriculture classes. He says about 150-students are enrolled in agriculture courses at Central Lee High School this year, compared to 35 or so when he was first hired.

Boeck says Central Lee has prided itself on its agriculture education programs, especially at a time when some districts are cutting back. He says students get hands on training in areas such as animal science, agronomy, farm management, sales and welding.

"Whether it's in a shop situation, the ag mechanics lab, horticulture would be in the greenhouse," says Boeck, "we have a land lab of 32 acres and we have all of our landscaping spots around the campus."

Boeck says more of his students are also pursuing higher education, instead of going to work on a farm right out of high school.

Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey says one reason could be the current make-up of Iowa's farms.

"We are seeing a growth in the larger farms and growth in the smaller farms," says Northey, "it is kind of the middle farms that are going away. We are seeing less of those middle farms."

Northey says the middle-sized farms are the family-or-generational operations that have allowed many young adults to get their start in farming. He says the growth of large-scale farming in Iowa has made it difficult to get that foot-in-the-door, but not impossible.

"When you have folks who are retiring," says Northey, "and farms coming onto the market to rent or buy. You have new farm ground, even if it was farmed last year, maybe it would not be farmed this year. So there is an opportunity to go on the land, though it's not easy and not inexpensive."

Northey says those challenges have led many students, with an interest in agriculture, to enter related fields: science, engineering, and nutrition.

That is the path Emily Krogmeier, 18, of West Point hopes to follow. She graduated from Holy Trinity High School earlier this year and plans to continue her education at Northeast Iowa Community College.

Krogmeier prefers the scientific side of agriculture, as she will focus on dairy sciences with an emphasis on cattle genetics. She is just one of thousands of Iowa students who will use their real-world experience and classroom work to decide what direction to take in the every-changing world of agriculture.