Fewer Americans are being raised on farms than 50 years ago, but agricultural education teachers may be more important than ever. They are helping young people understand the complex food system that keeps American’s food supply safe and secure.
With youth across the country falling behind in math and sciences and suffering from historically high rates of obesity, agricultural education teachers impart lessons in life science, technology, health and nutrition in an applied manner that engages youth with the natural environment.
As the role of agricultural teachers expands, the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences is preparing a new generation of teachers who are ready for the classroom, the garden and leadership roles.
“More suburban and urban schools are beginning to see the value of agriculture programs as a way to address childhood obesity, health education, and facilitate Farm-to-School programs that promote healthy eating,” said Jason Peake, an associate professor of agricultural education UGA CAES Department of Agricultural Leadership, Education and Communication (ALEC). “In short, our teachers and programs are evolving to fit the new challenges that our society is facing.”
Agricultural educators across the nation teach the foundations of agricultural science including plant and animal sciences, forestry, mechanics, horticulture, leadership and business skills. They also help bridge the gap between textbook science, math and leadership lessons and the world outside the classroom, said Kay Kelsey, newly hired ALEC department head.
“Agricultural education is a perfect venue for increasing not only science literacy, but also agriculture and food literacy in a holistic environment,” Kelsey said. “There is nothing more important to every person on planet Earth than a safe and secure food supply, and agricultural education is well positioned to provide that to America’s youth. Agricultural teachers go far beyond the classroom to reach students and help them grow into productive and healthy citizens.”
Despite the need for applied learning provided by today’s agricultural educators, their numbers have dwindled over the past decade. Many career ag educators have retired and fewer students are earning degrees in agricultural education.
ALEC is addressing teacher shortages by increasing the number of agricultural education faculty in the department and focusing on training teachers to work in urban centers, according to Kelsey.
“Our department is in the process hiring two new faculty members who will be based at UGA’s Griffin Campus to take advantage of location and access to Atlanta where urban agriculture is exploding, yet underrepresented in the literature,” Kelsey said.
Eighty percent of Americans live in urban areas and are increasingly interested in local and organic foods and growing fruit and vegetable gardens. Agricultural education teachers can play a vital role in expanding the local food movement by teaching youth and their parents how to sustainably grow food in whatever space available, she said.
“If you have a pot and a bag of soil, you can grow food,” Kelsey said.
One of Kelsey’s goals for the department is to help Atlanta Public Schools build a magnet school for agriculture where youth learn the principles of science through the application of growing food in a sustainable manner to feed communities.
She wants to leverage the state’s strong tradition of agricultural youth programs to strengthen agricultural education in urban and suburban schools.
“Georgia is well positioned to lead the nation in the urban agricultural movement with its strong support of Georgia 4-H, FFA, excellent State FFA and 4-H staff, and a variety of UGA degree and certificate programs to train the next generation of agricultural education teachers,” Kelsey said. “The only thing missing are adults willing to take on the challenge of educating America’s youth.”
There are more than 500,000 youth enrolled in the National FFA Organization. Georgia is the third strongest state with 35,500 members. Georgia also boasts about 180,000 students in fifth through 12th grades enrolled in UGA Extension’s Georgia 4-H program.
Peake, who works to recruit and train students into ALEC’s agricultural education program, said that while Georgia is still facing a deficit of agricultural education teachers — an increasing number of students are seeing the promise of teaching students about how agriculture impacts their lives.
The number of students with a traditional agriculture background has declined over the years and there has been an increase in students who come from suburban or urban backgrounds. These students need to open up urban areas to agricultural education with their understanding of how to reach non-traditional audiences.
Starting salaries for first-year agriculture teachers with a bachelor’s degree and a teaching certificate are about $45,000 in Georgia, among the highest in the nation. While not required, a master’s or doctorate degree add a significant pay raise.
For more information about the agricultural education program at UGA, visit www.alec.uga.edu or www.students.caes.uga.edu .
(Merritt Melancon is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)