The importance of agriculture in Minnesota classrooms

Published 8:03 am Tuesday, March 20, 2018

By Nick Schiltz

Riverland Community College Ag Faculty

Agriculture in Minnesota remains at the forefront of the state’s economy. From the Boundary Waters of northern Minnesota to the plains of southern Minnesota, a total of 74,542 farms are in operation every single day, working close to 26 million acres of fertile farmland.

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To what may appear as dormant soil in portions of the year, the agricultural industry accounts for an impressive $76 billion to the state’s economy, ranking as one of the most important sectors to our state’s continued success. It has been argued that in a 100-square mile radius (10 miles by 10 miles area) across any point in Minnesota, upwards of $60 million are accounted for in agricultural inputs and outputs. Outside of energy, there is no other industry that can boost those statistics and significance to a state’s resiliency.

We are blessed as educators to work with a cadre of students across the region who contribute to these statistics and success.

Minnesota farm kids are unlike other children their age. These students grew up in farms, baled hay, cared, prepped, and showed animals at their local county fairs. From here, they may have parlayed that experience into a Minnesota State Fair experience. Hard work and perseverance was ingrained in them in ways that other students did not have the luxury to receive. During their high school tenure, they still took part on the farm by receiving opportunities to take the initiative; command and responsibility. This included taking part in many tasks such as hauling grain, plowing and related subsurface tillage practices, and maybe even pulling their father out of a rut during early spring planting.

Their agricultural leadership took on a different role, an expansion, if you will, during these years. They were introduced to the curriculum that Minnesota high schools have to offer. Their interest in agriculture blossomed into an education their father or brother may not have been able to provide; the science of why things work the way they do. How does a corn plant take up nitrogen? In what elemental forms? How does an animal digest grain and forage? How can I weld two pieces of metal on a wagon axle that broke in the middle of the gravel road? These opportunities were in their high school agricultural courses that included plant science, horticulture, animal science, soil science, ag mechanics and small engines — even an industrial technology course useful for farm practices such as welding.

These same students across Minnesota took their farm and ranch experiences, supplemented them with an unique education in the high school classroom, but that was not enough for them! Their local FFA chapter was vibrant with producing the next generation of Agricultural and Food Science Technology leaders in Minnesota. These students were on the fast track on being the community leaders of tomorrow, everyday people like you and me. They competed in contests, fed farmers in the fall at the busy elevator, supported local humanitarian organizations, and took their experience on the farm and in the classroom and competed in crops and livestock judging teams. They learned about career exploration and possible pathways upon graduation. Their FFA adviser and ag teacher opened up so many new discussions and opportunities that they could not possibly fathom before, but now saw a remarkable opportunity to be a part of the agricultural equation in their hometown. Perhaps they took a post-secondary agricultural and food science technology course in their classroom with their ag teacher and received Riverland Community College credit, paving the way for them to receive their associate degree in agricultural sciences, and then entering the workforce locally or transferring on to a four-year institution to receive their bachelor’s degree. Maybe even moving on to a master’s or  doctorate. How can a student’s agricultural background be any more prolific than this?

Agricultural programs are disappearing across the nation, including Minnesota. The latest statistics indicate that two out of every 100 people have ties to production agriculture. This means that 98 percent of people do not know where their food comes from or how it was made. This division will continue as funding and staffing are cut within Agriculture programs in not only Minnesota, but across the Northern Great Plains. The importance of agricultural education transcends the classroom – we need it to continue to thrive. In 2016, over 5,000 agricultural careers were posted on agriculturally-related job boards. It was illustrated that only 23 percent of those jobs were filled by qualified applications with agricultural experience and background.

The United States government believed in 1956 that the only way to combat foreign aggression and the launch of the Soviet Union’s Sputnik rocket was to encourage STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) courses to their young students, even at the high school level. These individuals included Carl Sagan and Neil Armstrong, as well as a young Cresco, Iowa native who went on to be credited with saving millions of lives by improving wheat cultivators in Mexico and the east Asian countriesz: Norman Borlaug.

A career and technical education that stressed the rigors of advanced sciences was advocated and marketed across the United States, and within 13 years, the United States became the first country to successfully land a space shuttle and have man step foot on another planetary region. While attaining a lunar landing is well in our past, by 2050, the world’s population will reach over 9 billion people. That substantial growth will equate to a 22 percent increase, requiring agricultural producers to produce as much food as they have produced in the previous 10,000 years COMBINED.

As lawmakers, legislators, business and industry leaders, farmers, and ag educators, we must continue to challenge our communities to advance agricultural and dood Science Technology curriculum to our young students. We will need them to survive.