Agriculture is a diverse industry. According to National Ag Day, although only 10 percent of Americans are engaged in traditional farming, over 22 million additional people work in agriculture related fields, in one of the over 200 career options. The agriculture industry itself is growing, even though the number of farmers is shrinking.
With more and more individuals moving away from their family farms and the gap from farm to table getting wider each day, agriculture education is of greater importance than ever. There is just one problem — teachers for these programs are hard to find. According to Diane Olson of Missouri Farm Bureau, as of August 2015, at least three vocational agriculture education programs in Missouri were either without instructors or had to reduce the number of instructors in their program.
Part of the reason for this scarcity is that individuals moving away from their family farm have many different choices for careers in the agriculture industry. These individuals, who have experience and first-hand knowledge of the way agriculture works at its most basic level, have confidence that they would be able to relate to most jobs in the industry.
On the flip side, however, individuals entering the agriculture industry from the outside, especially those looking for careers in teaching, can be intimidated by their lack of experience. It is easy to imagine a situation where students in a class might know more than their instructor about some topics. With the number of students coming from traditional agriculture backgrounds shrinking and the industry expanding each year, non-traditional agriculture students could be the answer to the teacher shortage.
The problem with this is that these students lack hands-on knowledge that their peers, who grew up on farms, consider basic or fundamental.
The reality, though, is that even when students grows up on farms, it is impossible for them to know all that they need to know to teach the wide variety of subjects in agriculture education, according to Bryan Garton, associate dean of MU’s College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources, and member of the agricultural education and leadership faculty.
“There is no way that in four years, while a student in ag education is here, that he or she is going to learn everything that they need to know and be able to do with regard to the curriculum you are going to have in front of you when you go teach,” Garton said.
Garton grew up on a farm and became an agriculture education instructor. He described an experience he had as a high school teacher where he had students that wanted to learn upper-level mechanics skills, while he only knew and taught the basics.
“They wanted to build the big trailers,” Garton said. “They wanted to do concrete, electricity, all of which are possible courses in the ag program. I wasn’t taught all that. I didn’t have the classes in college, so I had to go learn.”
No one is capable of learning everything they will ever need to know to teach in their four years of post-secondary education. The difference is that traditional agriculture students have an extra 18 years of experience to add to their resume. Diane Olson knows what kind of impact that can have.
“There’s a huge learning curve if you haven’t had that background in agriculture,” Olson said.
Jon Simonsen, director of undergraduate studies for MU’s agricultural education and leadership program, agrees with Olson wholeheartedly.
“Probably one piece of that learning curve is just vocabulary, for lack of a better way to put it,” Simonsen said. “There’s a lot of terminology used and acronyms and things like that. If you haven’t been around that in the past, obviously it’s new. It can be a challenge at times.”
Olson has seen the difference between traditional and non-traditional backgrounds play out in The National FFA Organization. She was able to meet and talk to some of the State FFA Proficiency Award winners in preparation for the National FFA Convention in Louisville, Kentucky, this year.
“I was amazed at how many of them were non-traditional ag students,” Olson said. “If you asked them what they had written down, they had it done very well. But if you dug deeper, they didn’t have a clue.”
According to National FFA, proficiency awards “honor FFA members who, through their SAEs, have developed specialized skills that they can apply toward their future careers.” These proficiency winners might know about how to grow strawberries and make jam, but at the same time know nothing about how to raise livestock. They would have an abundance of knowledge about a specialized subject, but only a limited amount about other things.
“In your education program, you get pretty much a snapshot of things,” Olson said.
So, what can non-traditional students do to help them in their future careers?
“You just have to maximize all of those learning opportunities and don’t let it overwhelm you,” Olson said. “I’m a firm believer in that there’s something to be learned every day. I’ve got a lot of years of experience under my belt but I still learn every day. Sometimes I learn how not to do something. Sometimes I learn how to do something.”
Simonsen suggests hands-on learning as well.
“For that non-traditional student there’s a lot of background knowledge that’s assumed that a student would know and they may not, just because that’s how they grew up,” Simonsen said. “The hands-on side of it is how you learn.”