Ag classes serve more than future farmers

Published 12:00 am Monday, March 24, 2003

Tim Westrum is having the time of his life.

He is living a dream. The best of all worlds is at his disposal.

Not only can he farm with his father, but he can also teach farming

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It's not the same as the kind of agriculture education his father and grandfather received. But it's what works for the young men and women, who wear the FFA yellow and blue today and, hopefully, will be the farmers of tomorrow.

"We have to erase that old image of agriculture education and FFA," Westrum said. "Everything has changed. Actually, there's very little being taught about production agriculture in the classrooms today. It's a whole new ball game."

It's either "ag education" or "ag science." One thing it is not is "vocational agriculture."

Today's Austin High School students would cringe at the suggestion they are taking "vo ag" courses.

The change or metamorphosis was necessary, Westrum said.

"We had to change what we were teaching them," Westrum said, "because agriculture had changed. Today's high school students are not going to go home and farm. They may work in an ag-related profession and I hope they do, but as far as the old-style production agriculture goes, chances are, they won't be involved."

"Today's agriculture education, horticulture, marketing and all the other new courses, is a comfortable fit with the real world of modern agriculture," he said.

In Austin Public Schools, the agriculture education curriculum attempts to introduce students to career options that are "connected to agriculture."

In all the classes, Westrum teaches, both semester and school year-long courses, there are 120 students. They take courses such as "introduction to agriculture" and horticulture, landscaping, welding and beginning next semester one of the most talked-about courses at Austin High School: large animal wildlife.

All of the courses are electives.

The courses are evenly divided between upper classmen (seniors and juniors) and underclassmen (sophomores and freshmen) as well as males and females.

More females are registered for the new large animal wildlife course that Westrum brought with him from Houston and convinced the administration to offer AHS students.

What are today's agriculture education students like from a teacher's perspective in front of the classroom?

"It's hard to make a blanket assessment of them" Westrum said, "but I would say most of them are good kids. I believe they want to do well in school and are willing to try their best.

Westrum went from a half-time position on the AHS faculty last year to a full-time position this year. The number of students and the variety of classes demanded it.

But contrast the 120 agriculture education students with the 12 students who are actively involved in the AHS FFA program.

"The number is low and we all wish it were larger," he said. "But the FFA students I have are excited about the organization and full of self-starters who want to be challenged.

"Like agriculture, FFA has totally changed. "I don't believe there are more than two or three FFA students at AHS who come from farms."

Today's FFA focuses on giving members leadership and communications skills that they can use in many different careers, he said.

"FFA has a whole new agenda for modern students and that is to give them the skills they will need to use in any new job they have today," he said.

"It's not about milking cows. It's not about selecting gilts," he said. "It's about real-life skills. That's what today's students will learn in FFA and agriculture education classes."

"They will acquire the critical-thinking and problem-solving skills they can use no matter what they do, on the farm or off the farm," he said.

What would grandpa think of the teenagers wearing the familiar yellow and blue FFA colors today?

How does today's classroom-style agriculture education compare with that of 30, 20, 10, even five years ago?

Are today's agriculture education teachings enriching their communities with new ideas about the oldest profession: agriculture?

Are grow lights, welding coats, computer-drawn pie charts, bar graphs and multi-colored graphics any real assistance to the modern farmer?

"Everything I teach is relevant in the area of content," said Westrum, the farm boy who became a farm man, who practices what he teaches. "I think we try to offer our students the broad perspective of what is modern agriculture."

"In the future, we will have to change what we are doing today because agriculture is continuing to change," he said. "For instance, I would like to see more courses to our curriculum at AHS. I would like to see curse in ag business, ag marketing, small engines, raising cattle, sheep, swine or some other livestock and even equine science.

"The majority of the FFA kids live in Austin. That reflects what agriculture is like out there today. Agriculture education students don't come from the farm, because there aren't the number of farms in the countryside that there once was in our society. We have to understand that and constantly make our courses, the things we do, relevant and enriching for the small towns and rural areas who depend on the boys and girls we are teaching to, hopefully, someday come back home and farm or live there."

Does Westrum feel overwhelmed by the dual risk and challenges he faces as both a farmer and a teacher of farming education?

"Not at all," he said. "For me, I've living a dream. I love production agriculture and I love teaching it, but it must meet the needs that exist."

Westrum wrestles willingly with new twists to the old agriculture curriculum all the time. Biotechnology, genetically altered crops, animal ethics. The teacher likes the curiosity being shown by his students.

"That's the kind of information they will need to move further into the 21st century," he said.

Westrum hopes information, the knowledge growing in every agriculture education student's mind, will enrich all.

Lee Bonorden can be reached at 434-2232 or by e-mail at