Agriculture Education Blooms in Urban, Rural High Schools

Alexandra Pannoni
March 31, 2014

No longer just about cows and plows, the modern agriculture industry encompasses subsectors such as urban forestry and agricultural biotechnology, which includes the genetic engineering of crops. As the industry has grown, so has the interest in teaching teens more about it.

About 15 percent of the U.S. workforce is employed in agriculture-related careers, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation, and more than 54,000 jobs for college graduates in the agricultural, food and renewable natural resources sectors are expected to be created annually from 2010-2015, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In addition to many career opportunities in the field, agriculture classes allow students to practice real applications of math, science and English concepts, and is among the reasons why high schools are embracing agriculture education, says Jay Jackman, executive director of the National Association of Agricultural Educators.

Agriculture classes can help students who may have a difficult time understanding theories and concepts in a traditional math or science class, Jackman says. "You put them in an agriculture class and you teach them photosynthesis, for example, in the context of agricultural crops and the science becomes real to them," he says.

Agriculture education programs are sprouting up in high schools across the U.S., particularly in suburban and urban areas, Jackman says.

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Vincent High School in Milwaukee reinstated its agriculture education program last year; the program was eliminated in the 1990s because of funding problems, says Gail Kraus, an agriculture outreach specialist who works with the school. Agriculture education will eventually become the focus of the school -- akin to a magnet school, Kraus says.

Career opportunities were one of the reasons why the program was reintroduced. "This region has a high concentration of food science careers," she says.

The first class that students take at the school is about urban agriculture; topics include urban soil, urban gardening and greenhouses. Kraus says that although some students are initially uninterested, once they get to experience the interactive aspects of the class, like working in the greenhouse or bee aviary, they tend to become more receptive.

"A lot of them come down and get into the greenhouse and say, 'Oh my gosh, this is in the school?'" she says.

[Read about how 4-H club has evolved into more than an agricultural organization.]

Despite its rural location, agriculture classes at Morris Area High School, in Morris, Minn., were not very popular when Natasha Mortenson, an agriculture teacher, started teaching at the school 13 years ago.

During her first year teaching at the school, agriculture classes suffered from low enrollment and Mortenson recalls that only a few students in the graduating class planned to pursue agriculture-related careers. Today, agriculture classes are popular at the school; Mortenson teaches 10 different classes each year.

The hands-on aspects of classes keep students interested, Mortenson says. In an agriculture processing class students learned how to cut hog carcasses; they also made sausage and jerky. "Just seeing a carcass come in and being able to identify that food system, it makes them excited about it," she says.

Conventional farming practices are covered in the curriculum, but Mortenson says that it can be a difficult field for students to get into because of the high price of land, among other reasons. So she teaches her students about sustainable farming, such as producing free-range eggs or chickens, popular products that can be farmed on a relatively small piece of land.

In addition to agriculture processing and animal science courses, students can take classes such as woods and welding, horticulture and food chemistry, among others.

Mortenson says about a third of graduating students are now interested in pursuing agriculture-related careers.

"It's not just the food part of it, it's not just the farming part of it, but everything that supports the agriculture industry is a part of agriculture," she says. "It's like a big web of jobs. There are very few jobs that don't relate back to agriculture."

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Alexandra Pannoni is an education intern at U.S. News. You can follow her on Twitter or email her at