Seeds of knowledge

Friday, May 28, 2004

Set aside the books. Abandon the classroom. Get dirty. For David Wells, there's no better way to teach a class.

On this dim May morning, the Jackson teacher is worried threatening weather will cut short his students' task of potting 500 chrysanthemums and planting holly alongside the school auditorium.

Students in Wells' summer school class were hand-picked by the veteran teacher for their dedication to agriculture. In this class, not even digging a hole in the ground is simple.

There was a time in Wells' 27-year tenure at Jackson High School when his agriculture program dwindled to 65 students and he taught study hall instead of six straight hours of agriculture classes during the regular school year.

A similar decline took place in most high schools across Missouri, and many eliminated their agriculture programs as a result. But in recent years, "ag" education has made a strong comeback throughout the state. Wells' program in Jackson will cater to some 300 students next year, over a quarter of the high school's population.

Wells got a second greenhouse last year through a state grant. More than 120 freshmen have signed up for agriculture classes this fall. He's acquired a new aquaculture system that will allow his students to raise tilapia fish next year.

The rain is somehow holding off for now. Wells directs his three students to begin planting Foster's holly along a sidewalk.

"The walls of the hole have got to be straight, guys. I don't want to have to come back and try to straighten this later," he tells the three. "No, let me rephrase that. You all don't want to have to come back and straighten it."

The students -- 16-year-olds Richard Jaco, Amanda Landgraf and David Welker -- try again, using the backs of their shovels to smooth out the hole.

Two decades ago, agriculture classes at Jackson High School suffered. It started with a decline in farming.

"During the mid-1980s, the economy was bad in agriculture and mom and dad didn't talk about getting into agriculture," Wells explains. "The money just wasn't there."

His students are finished digging the first hole. Wells whips out his tape measure and pronounces it too deep for the plant. Back in goes some of the dirt. Amanda stomps the clumps down with her boots, then measures the hole again.

"He's pretty picky on landscaping, but I guess you've got to be picky," she says. "More dirt, more fun."

Her comrades lift the red-beaded Foster's holly from its plastic container and settle the plant into its new home. As the three students pack dirt around the base, Wells returns for another inspection.

"Not bad. Now you just have to do it eight more times," he says with a smile.

Wells is beginning to see second-generation students in his classes.

"That," he says. "is almost as good as a pay raise."

Agriculture education has changed a great deal since Wells began teaching. Advances in technology and the inclusion of areas such as natural resources, conservation and horticulture can be credited in part with the program's rejuvenation across the state, say Wells and other ag teachers.

"A lot of times, people think of agriculture as cows and plows," Wells explains. "It's not just farming. We diversified. There are over 200 jobs now in agriculture, and only one of them is farming."

Jim Cassity, district supervisor of agriculture education with the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, says the state decided to revamp its agriculture curriculum when programs started to backslide in the 1980s.

A steady recovery is now evident, Cassity says. New high school ag programs have popped up across the state each year for at least the past three years, bringing the total number of programs to 300 out of 524 school districts.

Student membership in Missouri chapters of Future Farmers of America has also grown, bringing the total to a record high 20,000 members, Cassity said.

"Students are very interested in these things. Most students aren't going to go back to the farm, and many don't even come from a farm these days, but there are so many aspects of agriculture that provide career opportunities," Cassity said.

Only a few local high schools, including Jackson, still maintain agriculture programs. Even in rural districts such as Scott City and Oak Ridge, that area of study has been abandoned.

A few schools, such as Kelly and Oran, are still operating programs, and those ag teachers say they're doing well.

At Kelly, teacher Jeff Scherer has 80 students in his program, which includes classes such as agriculture science, animal science, agriculture construction and landscaping.

Scherer says his biggest problem is losing students to college Internet courses. At the senior level, students opt to take courses that offer college credit, instead high school classes such as agriculture.

While the program isn't growing, it's stable, Scherer said.

"We do a lot of hands on, and we don't sit in a classroom every day," he says. "Students like to get out, and most don't mind getting their hands dirty."

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