Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Agricultural Education ~ We'll Reap What We Sow

As we settle into the new school year and the concept of having a child old enough to attend junior high, my husband and I have been asked several times why we chose to send our son to the smaller "country" school in nearby Shepherd, rather than within our own "city" Billings Public School District #2.

Well....there are several reasons, but none of which had anything to do with convenience. First, the city school district bus comes directly to our driveway. Unfortunately, the Shepherd district bus does not, so one of us must either drive our son the 10 miles to and from the school everyday; or one mile to the nearest Shepherd bus stop drop one hour before school and one hour after school; or simply make other arrangements until he's old enough to drive himself. So far, we seem to be adjusting to this new transportation juggling.

So, nix the convenience factor and our decision basically has everything to do with more educational and organizational choices. "What??!!" you say? The smaller country school offers MORE, or at the very least, different educational choices than the largest city school district in the state of Montana?? Yes! Specifically, vocational agricultural classes and an organization chapter affiliated with a little, okay let's say, BIG national organization that boasts nearly 560,000 members and 7,500 state chapters called, the Future Farmers of America....or a.k.a...FFA! Yes...the smaller school offers these choices!

"There are two things that make goose bumps go up and down my back: one is Old Glory flying over the nation's capitol when I walk by it at night, and the other is when I see FFA members in their blue jackets. I get an emotional feeling because FFA lifted me out of the depths of poverty and personal problems to the halls of Congress."  Wes Watkins, former U.S. congressman from Oklahoma and former president of the Oklahoma FFA Association.

Agriculture ~ Montana's Largest Industry

Wheat harvest time in the Gallatin Valley
 With the average size farm or ranch at 2,068 acres, Montana currently ranks 5th in the U.S. for lamb production and 6th for wool production and leads the U.S. in organic production for dry peas, durum wheat, and spring wheat.
Statistics and photo  from the Montana Dept. of Agriculture.
When I think about agricultural education being offered in our Montana public schools, I have to wonder why the Billings Public Schools, which serves about 16,000 students in grades K-12 in 30 different schools located across the city, don't offer these courses. After all, the latest statistics from the Montana Dept. of Agriculture website indicates that agriculture continues to be Montana's largest industry with nearly $3 billion in income generated on more than 29,000 farm and ranches.

Wheat and beef account for about three-fourths of the state’s agricultural receipts, but pulse crops such as peas and lentils are gaining ground. Other crops include barley (#3 in U.S.), honey (#5 in U.S.), and oilseeds such as safflower and canola. Montana also is known for its hay, sweet cherries, sugar beets, and seed potatoes.

I'm certain that Billings Public School District #2 officials would inform me that my children could still get "agriculture" education options by sending them to the Career Center. However, course work there is only available to sophomores, juniors and seniors. And, even at that, I can't say I'm too impressed with the "urban agricultural" classes offered there, including:
Course Description: This course is designed for the student that has a genuine interest in the “Green Industry” with an emphasis on plants and environmental factors that affect them. Learning will take place through a combination of indoor/outdoor laboratory activities.
Environmental Studies
Course Description: A one or two-semester course in which students examine the complex ecological, sociological and political problems created by human interaction with the Earth’s environment.

Luckily, for parents like us who live on the west or east outskirts, we can apply to have our children go out of district to either Laurel or Shepherd. Here's what the Shepherd offers:

Agricultural Education: A sequential set of course offerings for students 7-12. The programs is designed to develop knowledge, skills, attitudes and experience in and about agriculture. Ag Ed prepares students for further eduction, self-employment, entry-level jobs and consumer awareness in the agriculture industry. Courses currently offered: Agriculture Education 1, 2, 3 &4; Ag Construction, Horticulture and Jr. High Wood Shop.

Thank you President Lincoln!

Vocational Agricultural, as it was formerly called, started in Montana in 1917 with the passing of the Smith-Hughes Vocation Education Act of 1917. But even before that,  I can't help but think of and thank Abraham Lincoln for his contribution to agriculture education. The Morrill Act, which would provide a federal grant of 30,000 acres of public land for each senator and representative in Congress to establish land-grant colleges, was first proposed in 1857 by Congressman Justin Smith Morrill of Vermont, and was passed by Congress in 1859. However, it was vetoed by President James Buchanan.

Meanwhile in 1858, Abraham Lincoln, a "prairie lawyer" in Springfield, Ill., was using the  Farmers' Almanac 's for one his most notable criminal trials. He defended William "Duff" Armstrong, who was on trial for the murder of James Preston Metzker. According to Wikipedia, the case is famous for Lincoln's use of a fact established by judicial notice to challenge the credibility of an eyewitness. After an opposing witness testified seeing the crime in the moonlight, Lincoln produced the Farmers' Almanac to show that  the moon was at a low angle, drastically reducing visibility. Based on this evidence, Armstrong was acquitted.
In 1859, Milton W. Reynolds, editor of the Nebraska City News, had this to say about establishing a colleges of agriculture and studying the act of "farming":

"One of the most visionary, impractical, unnecessary and useless schemes for the political self-aggrandizement that was ever thought of, is this of building agricultural colleges all over the country. They are a sinecure, perfectly useless, absolutely detrimental. We want the sturdy bone and sinew, the strong arms and and stout beard, to cultivate our soil, not gentleman farmers, kid-gloved, cologne-scented and pampered gentry, with a smattering of science -- with a strong compounded laziness. Agricultural colleges have been tried and have resulted in miserable....failures."

Milton W. Reynolds (1823-1890) - Writer, politician and newspaper publisher, 
Reynolds was editor of the Nebraska City News until 1861.


Thankfully, Abraham Lincoln didn't feel the same at Milton Reynolds. Nearly a year before he was elected the 16th President of the United States, Lincoln addressed the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society:

"This leads to the further reflection, that no other human 
occupation opens so wide a field for the profitable and 
agreeable combination of labor with cultivated thought, 
as agriculture. I know of nothing so pleasant to the mind, 
as the discovery of anything which is at once new and 
valuable -- nothing which so lightens and sweetens toil, 
as the hopeful pursuit of such discovery. And how vast, 
and how varied a field is agriculture, for such discovery. 
The mind, already trained to thought, in the country 
school, or higher school, cannot fail to find there 
an exhaustless source of profitable enjoyment."
Abraham Lincoln

In 1861, Morrill resubmitted the act with the amendment that the proposed institutions would teach military tactics, along with engineering and agriculture. Aided by the secession of many states that did not support the plans, this reconfigured Morrill Act was signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln on July 2, 1862.

Sow the Seed, Reap the Harvest
This past week at Harvest Church, we wrapped up a lesson series called, "7 Laws of the Harvest". Our pastor gave examples of what we understand from the natural world and how it translates and puts into perspective our personal spiritual walk. He reminded us that we can't put seed in the ground one day, and expect to harvest it the very next day. It takes time, patience, cultivating, nurturing and some weed pulling. And sometimes....when we've done everything right, we will reap more than we sow. So, here's the careful what you sow. Sow little...reap little. Sow lots....reap lots. Sow bad....reap bad. Sow good...reap good.

Continue to take agricultural education out of our school curriculum....we're left with a bunch a kids who grow up to be adults that think their food comes from the grocery store. Worse yet...we have people with no agricultural background making policies and regulations telling those who do know how to farm and ranch how they should be operating their businesses.

I admit that our "sports-broadcasting" fanatic 7th grader may never take after his mother's love and enthusiasm for agriculture or pursue a vocation specific to agriculture. And that's okay with me. But what my husband and I hope to do by sending him to a school that offers elective agricultural courses, is to instill in him the knowledge, appreciation and understanding of this industry and the hard work and energy it takes to make our nation's food. Here's praying we are never hungry enough to take food for granted. I hope when our son is out in the "real world", our little "Lamp" may be a beacon of light for another child or adult who can come to know and understand what generations of America's farmers and ranchers and those associated with agricultural have done to produce and maintain an abundant, safe and affortable food supply in our country.

It sad to me that the largest city and the largest school district in our state does not offer agricultural education and FFA to the extent that its smaller, neighboring schools do. I'm grateful for the school options and food choices we enjoy today. All we know how to do and to keep doing is "planting the seeds" of agricultural education where it needs to grow.

"Let us not become weary in doing good for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up," Galations 6:9

Montana FFA was chartered in 1930 as the 38th state to join the National FFA Organization.

Proud to be a parent of a junior high FFA member and  NEW Shepherd FFA Alumni Member!