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Friday, 18 March 2016 11:38

Demand for agriculture workers, teachers outstrips supply

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Elkhorn Area High School senior Connie Haacker fills a syringe with liquid as students in Dave Kruse’s veterinary science class practice administering injections last week. The agriculture industry faces a shortage in trained workers, prompting schools such as Elkhorn to increase offerings of agriculture courses. Officials also are concerned about a potential shortage of agriculture teachers. Elkhorn Area High School senior Connie Haacker fills a syringe with liquid as students in Dave Kruse’s veterinary science class practice administering injections last week. The agriculture industry faces a shortage in trained workers, prompting schools such as Elkhorn to increase offerings of agriculture courses. Officials also are concerned about a potential shortage of agriculture teachers. Terry Mayer

WALWORTH COUNTY SUNDAY -- Students undecided about a career might want to consider agriculture, and plenty of people in the industry hope they do. The demand for employees in a wide variety of ag-related fields continues to outstrip the supply, said Jeff Hicken, agriculture education consultant and Wisconsin FFA adviser, and that has some leaders in the field worried.

Adding to the problem is an increasing shortage of experienced agriculture teachers as they retire and potential replacements choose more lucrative careers.

Wisconsin lawmakers are working on several proposals to address the shortages.

Recently Rep. Mark Spreitzer, D-Beloit, and Sen. Janis Ringhand, D-Evansville, introduced legislation to create a student loan reimbursement program for new farmers. The bill has not been acted on in the Legislature.

The average age of a farm operator in Wisconsin is 54.5 years, and there are more than twice as many farm operators between the ages of 55 and 74 as between the ages of 25 and 44, according to Spreitzer.

To help school districts find teachers for hard-to-fill positions like ag education, the Wisconsin Legislature created a licensing process based on experience. Those teachers then could work toward a professional teaching license.

Gov. Scott Walker signed the bill March 8, allowing schools to start using the new process for the next school year.

Hicken said he is optimistic that supply will soon meet demand, because more students seem to be interested in pursuing an agriculture career. He said more students are joining Future Farmers of America groups and more schools are adding agriculture programs.

“The FFA organization in Wisconsin has a record number of students joining, over a 30-year period,” Hicken said. “When schools are hiring additional agriculture instructors, it shows that more students are looking at agriculture as a potential career.”

He said there is demand in areas like biotechnology and engineering, as well as by companies looking for workers willing to travel around the globe.

During the past few years, Hicken said he has worked with farm bureaus, FFA organizations and colleges to promote agriculture to elementary school students.

“High school teachers and FFA students are going into elementary schools and talking to students about career opportunities in agriculture,” Hicken said. “The Wisconsin Farm Bureau has the Ag in the Classroom program where they educate students about agriculture. A lot of local libraries are starting to have more resources available about careers in agriculture.”

Elkhorn

“There’s a stereotype that agriculture is mostly raising livestock and crops. We’re facing a shortage in trained workers,” said David Kruse, agriculture instructor at Elkhorn Area High School.

“We want to let students know that agriculture also involves marketing and sales. It’s a full-time production to make sure food, fuel and fiber gets out to the public.”

Kruse said EAHS offers 14 agriculture-related classes with three new classes being added this year, including environment sustainability, leadership and communication and food science.

“With the environment sustainability class, students are eligible to obtain college credit for the Milwaukee School of Engineering,” Kruse said. “The (food science) class focuses on the science and technology of food production, from the time it leaves the farm to the time it arrives at the grocery stores.”

Kruse said the school’s FFA program has about 155 members, which includes middle school, high school and college students. He said the ag students and FFA members talk to other students about the agriculture industry.

“We use news media, social media, Facebook and Twitter to share information about agriculture,” Kruse said. “We host an Easter egg hunt and that attracts about 300 people. We do anything we can to share information with families about career opportunities that might be available to them and their children.”

Kruse said he is optimistic about the future of agriculture as long as there are people willing to work in the industry.

“If I didn’t think there was a future in agriculture, I wouldn’t be teaching it,” Kruse said. “As long as there’s people on the planet, we need to make sure there’s people in agriculture to provide food, fuel and fiber in an environmentally safe way.

When we don’t have people working in agriculture, that’s when we face challenges. We want to give people the skills they need to work in agriculture. We need students, parents and school officials interested in agriculture. It’s critical because it’s needed.”

Janesville Parker

Krista White, agriculture instructor at Parker High School in Janesville, said there is a significant need for agriculture instructors and managers.

“From my experience, there’s a shortage of ag teachers,” she said. “In our community, there are a lot of people who are close to retirement.”

She said the industry is growing rapidly in its use of technology, and there is a need for workers to operate new agricultural technology.

“My dad is 72 years old and he’s still farming, but it’s becoming difficult because new technology is posing a challenge,” White said.

Farming today is a lot more than planting seeds.

“There’s a need for large animal veterinarians. ... There’s a need in a lot of agricultural careers,” White said.

Despite that, the number of students who are interested in agriculture has remained steady the past few years.

White said Parker offers a variety of agricultural-related classes. Several students work in the school’s greenhouse and some of the FFA members work with animals. Several of her students plan to continue to study agriculture after they graduate from high school.

“I have students who want to become veterinarians,” she said. “I have a couple of students who want to become ag leaders. I have a student who wants to become an ag breeder and wants to open a boarding kennel.

“I have another student who wants to go into environmental science.”

Milton

Stacy Skemp, agriculture instructor at Milton High School, said she also feels there is a significant need for agriculture teachers.

“There’s a huge shortage of ag teachers,” Skemp said. “It’s a concern because we want to make sure there are students going into the ag-education field. If we don’t have enough teachers, I’m afraid it will be lost.”

Skemp said there still is a demand for traditional agricultural jobs, as well.

“There’s a variety of ways to grow our food and make the land as efficient as possible,” Skemp said. “There’s still a need for laborers, whether it be working on a farm or at a greenhouse.”

Skemp said she has not noticed an increase in the number of students enrolling in the school’s agricultural program. She said students in the school’s FFA program, which has about 250 members, often promote agriculture to other students.

“Milton has a strong agriculture community,” Skemp said. “A lot of FFA members and alumni host activities to inform students about agriculture. A lot of (information) is spread by word-of-mouth to the other students. They talk to other students about what they’re doing in the classroom. We have the woods near the high school and recently we tapped trees for sap, and a lot of students saw us doing that.”

Clinton

Marlina Jackson, Clinton Community School District agriculture instructor, said she reaches down to the middle school to begin teaching students about agriculture and ag-related professions.

“We try to spark (students’) interest early through introductory courses at the middle school. We have FFA members who go out in the community to educate people about agriculture.”

Clinton is a rural area, and there are a lot of kids who have that agriculture experience, but now Jackson says she is seeing more kids who don’t have a direct tie to agriculture interested in it as a career.

“Technology has had a huge impact on the future of agriculture,” Jackson said. “As long as people need to eat, there will be a need for agriculture careers.”

Jackson said some of the more popular careers in the industry include animal agriculture and biotechnology.

“I think a lot of people like the idea of working hands-on with animals,” Jackson said. “Crop restoration and biotechnology is a big deal. There are a lot of kids in high school who go into a farm program after they graduate to further their education in the field of agriculture.”

Jackson said there are about 90 students who are involved with the agriculture program at the high school and about 96 students at the middle school. She said more students have become interested in studying agriculture during the past few years.

“I’ve been here for about three years and I’ve seen class sizes increase,” Jackson said. “It’s just not the farm kids.”

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