A Spotlight on Agricultural Education
Published in the May 25, 2018, edition of Lancaster Farming
As the school year draws to a close across the region, I thought it would be a good time to reflect on the state of agriculture education in Maryland. While so much of modern education tends to focus on technology, I think we are missing an opportunity to establish a link between these exciting emerging fields and how they can relate to a career in agriculture. This can include a variety of roles from precision ag engineering to resource conservation specialists. While it is easy to get discouraged by younger generations becoming further removed from the farm, a couple recent experiences have left me with a renewed optimism for future generations of Maryland farmers.
In the past month, I have had the privilege to visit two very different schools in two very different parts of our state. The one thing these schools have in common is an incredible group of young people with a passion for agricultural science and conservation. Both of these schools have energized their students with a newfound interest in what is too often considered an old-school industry.
Green Street Academy
Earlier this month, I joined the Maryland Agricultural Commission for a tour of Green Street Academy, a public charter school in West Baltimore. This school accepts students from across the city and provides valuable educational resources that have become far too scarce in many of the city’s public schools.
We were greeted by a group of students and teachers from the school’s urban agriculture and conservation program. From the very start of our visit, it was clear that these students have a great sense of pride in what they have accomplished, and deservedly so. We saw projects that used original coding to control the climate of an indoor grow room, an aquaculture project where students raised tilapia, multiple greenhouse projects, a chicken coop where students collected and studied eggs, and a trailer full of vertical grow towers that have become a staple of urban agriculture operations.
The students talked about a variety of issues affecting agriculture, including resource conservation and the importance of being good stewards of the environment. One student linked his passion for agriculture to growing up in a food desert, and wanting to find new ways to provide fresh, nutritious foods to underserved communities.
West Baltimore may not seem like a hotbed for agriculture education, but as I learned from the students at Green Street Academy—and through past interactions with other schools in the area—that perception has a lot more to do with a lack of opportunity than a lack of interest from the students.
Hancock High School
Last month, I was invited to Washington County to visit with students at Hancock High School. When I arrived, I was impressed to learn that more than half of the student body participates in the school’s agriculture program. Much like the students I met in Baltimore, these young people spoke with a genuine passion and curiosity for agriculture that felt contagious. A lot of that can be credited to their teacher, Tom Mazzone.
In just four years, Mr. Mazzone has essentially built the school’s robust agriculture program from scratch. He has tapped a number of resources and obtained grants to create a curriculum that mixes academic study with invaluable hands-on experience. I was treated to a presentation that showed students making apple cider, raising chickens, and building chicken coops and handicap-accessible planters. Any money made from the school’s projects goes right back into the program.
For the latter half of the visit, I helped Mr. Mazzone present 4-H awards and recognition to several students in his class. I also had a chance to speak with the class about what they have learned from the program and their plans for the future. Not all of them plan to pursue a career in agriculture, but each one expressed how much they value the ag program and plan to apply the knowledge they have gained in the future.
Despite the drastically different circumstances, these two schools are great examples of what happens when we give students the tools to learn more about our industry. I am grateful to organizations like the Maryland Agricultural Education Foundation and many others who are working to bring more of these opportunities to schools across the state. If the students and teachers of Green Street Academy and Hancock High School are any indication, the future is bright for Maryland agriculture.