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Agriculture education flies under radar despite importance | Nvdaily

It’s easy for people to look at Hannah Campbell’s role as a teacher and think they know what it’s all about — that she teaches her regular students during a regular school day and then goes home.

But as the agriculture teacher for East Rockingham High School, her day expands much further than the classroom.

“It’s like I have three full-time jobs,” Campbell said.

Agriculture education has been a staple of rural school divisions in Virginia for decades. It has changed over the years as agriculture-based jobs and interests have changed.

But what has remained is the great scope of the responsibility of the ag teacher, which includes both their in-school classes, as well as their duties as adviser of the FFA, and for Campbell, an adult education program called Young Farmers.

This week, Campbell will be getting home to her farm in Churchville in Augusta County well past sundown, as is the case most days. After she finishes her classes for the day, Campbell has any variety of FFA activities, whether it is traveling with her students to contests such as Federation of Forestry or coaching the Virginia Dairymen’s team.

And those are both examples just from this week.

Some might ask why Campbell would take on so much responsibility for so many students, and the answer is agriculture education has been her passion before she even could put words to it.

After graduating from Virginia Tech in 2015, she went into sales with her uncle while also doing landscaping on the side. She hated the former and loved the latter. But landscaping is a seasonal job. While trying to figure out what was next, Campbell got a call asking if she could be a long-term ag teacher substitute.

“I guess people knew me in the community for landscaping,” she said.

As it turned out, it was just what she was looking for. Campbell went back to Virginia Tech to get her master’s degree and teaching certification. While doing her student teaching at ERHS, the ag teacher at the time took an offer with another school division. The school asked and the job was hers.

This is Campbell’s third year as an ag teacher, but her first year was cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic and her second year was virtual.

“I have such a passion and love for this industry,” she said. “I love seeing students’ eyes open to the possibilities that they might not have known.”

As the supervisor for career and technical education for Rockingham County Public Schools, Eric Fitzgerald said agriculture education has been a particular passion of his.

There are 15 ag teachers for the county, and every middle and high school has a program. In addition, almost every class offered at all schools is full this year.

Ag education has changed over the years in a number of ways. In the past two decades, the program has seen the enrollment of a lot more female students, Fitzgerald said.

More recently, school divisions are using more and more hybrid classes as a way to incorporate agriculture into the mainstream classroom. For instance, RCPS offers an agriculture biology class where students earn a credit for each.

And most recently, just this year, students can earn credit for something called student agriculture experiences, or SAEs.

“If the students work in an ag field for 280 hours and document their work, whether it’s through a pay stub or record, they receive a second credit for their class,” Fitzgerald said.

Like most areas in education, finding ag teachers can be a challenge. For RCPS, they are 11 or 11.5 month contract employees and therefore work more days a year than an average teacher, Fitzgerald said. That being said, those who take the positions often stay there.

Paryce Black is one of two agriculture teachers for J. Frank Hillyard Middle School. Between her and her co-teacher, she can see 350 students in a year. That brings her four-year total during her time teaching ag as high as 1,400.

Black enjoys the classroom, but it’s her role in FFA that really gets her excited.

“I tell all my students on the first day, ‘I don’t teach for the classroom portion. I teach because FFA is a part of my job,’” Black said. “The FFA component is my favorite because it allows us to provide real-life, hands-on experiences to our students to develop their potential for leadership, personal growth and hopefully career success.”

Ag education has changed over the years in Black’s opinion due in large part to SAEs.

“The number of teachers who actually taught/required SAEs was very low until the state required all ag students to have an SAE project,” she said. “This is the biggest hurdle most teachers are facing. Learning how to incorporate such a broad and diverse component of ag is challenging.”

Black said she wishes more students and people in general would realize that you don’t have to be a farmer to take ag classes or be involved in FFA.

“Today, only 1 to 2% of our members come from a production agriculture background, so instead of being a ‘farming’ organization we are now the largest youth leadership organization in the United States,” Black said. “If people truly knew and understood this, I think our membership would be more widely diverse.”

Harrisonburg City Public Schools does not have a specific agriculture education program, although students can pursue studies in various fields at Massanutten Technical Center, said Pat Lintner, chief academic officer for the school division.