Athens, Ga. – Fewer Americans are being raised on farms than 50 years ago, but agricultural education teachers may be more important than ever—helping young people understand the complex food system that keeps Americans’ food supply safe and secure.
With that in mind, the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences is celebrating National Teach Ag Day on Sept. 26.
With students across the country falling behind in math and science and suffering from historically high rates of obesity, agricultural education teachers are able to impart lessons in life science, technology, health and nutrition in an applied manner that engages youth with the natural environment, said Jason Peake, an associate professor of agricultural education in the UGA department of agricultural leadership, education and communication.
“More suburban and urban schools are beginning to see the value of agriculture programs as a way to address childhood obesity and health education and facilitate Farm-to-School programs that promote healthy eating,” Peake said. “In short, our teachers and programs are evolving to fit the new challenges that our society is facing. “
Agricultural educators across the nation teach the foundations of agricultural science including plant and animal sciences, forestry, mechanics, horticulture, leadership and business skills. They also help bridge the gap between textbook science, math and leadership lessons and the world outside the classroom, said Kay Kelsey, who is Peake’s newly hired department head.
“Agricultural education is a perfect venue for increasing not only science literacy but also agriculture and food literacy in a holistic environment,” Kelsey said. “There is nothing more important to every person on planet Earth than a safe and secure food supply, and agricultural education is well positioned to provide that to America’s youth. Agricultural teachers go far beyond the classroom to reach students and help them grow into productive and healthy citizens.”
Despite the need for applied learning provided by today’s agricultural educators, the numbers have dwindled over the past decade as many have retired, she said, and fewer students are earning degrees in the field.
The UGA department of agricultural leadership, education and communication is addressing teacher shortages by increasing the number of its own faculty and training future teachers to work in urban areas. When hired, its two new faculty members will be based on the UGA Griffin campus, which is located just south of the metro Atlanta area.
Eighty percent of Americans live in urban areas and are increasingly interested in local and organic foods and growing fruit and vegetable gardens, Kelsey said. Agricultural education teachers can play a vital role in expanding the local food movement by teaching students and their parents how to sustainably grow food in whatever space is available.
“If you have a pot and a bag of soil, you can grow food,” she said.
One of Kelsey’s goals for the department is to help Atlanta Public Schools build a magnet school for agriculture where youth learn the principles of science through the application of growing food in a sustainable manner to feed communities.
She wants to leverage the state’s strong tradition of agricultural youth programs to strengthen agricultural education in urban and suburban schools.
“Georgia is well positioned to lead the nation in the urban agricultural movement with its strong support of Georgia 4-H and FFA, excellent state FFA and 4-H staff and variety of UGA degree and certificate programs,” Kelsey said. “The only thing missing are adults willing to take on the challenge of educating America’s youth.”
More than 500,000 youths are enrolled in the National FFA Organization today; Georgia is the third strongest state with 35,500 members. Georgia also has 180,000 students in fifth through 12th grades enrolled in UGA Extension’s 4-H program.
Peake, who works to recruit and train students in UGA’s agricultural education program, said that while Georgia is still facing a deficit of agricultural education teachers, an increasing number of students are seeing the promise of teaching students about how agriculture impacts their lives.
The number of students with traditional agriculture backgrounds has declined over the years. However, there has been an increase in students who come from suburban or urban backgrounds, he said, which is the type of students needed to open urban areas to agricultural education with their understanding of how to reach nontraditional audiences.
Starting salaries for first-year agriculture teachers, with a bachelor’s degree and a teaching certificate, are about $45,000 in Georgia, among the highest in the nation.