By Paul Larson
Freedom Area School District, Wis.
When I began teaching agriculture in 1987, I had better-than-average insight
into what to expect when I entered the classroom because my father preceded me
in the profession. Having taught for 39 years, he participated in the
formative years of agricultural education. He experienced a lot of changes
in nearly four decades of teaching, and I can vouch for the fact that changes
have continued beyond his retirement. One thing that hasn’t changed is the
agricultural education model of instruction. It remains the cornerstone of
In the early days, when agriculture students were all farm boys, the
classroom instruction, supervised agricultural experience, and FFA were fairly
simple to implement and instructional gains were almost automatic. Farm
boys’ instruction was based on their career interest, their projects were some
of the animals or crops they raised at home, and FFA enhanced their leadership
and personal growth skills to make them valuable members of their communities.
While our clientele has changed over the years, the successful utilization of
the three-circle model has not.
The model is solid; however, our implementation of the model requires some
tweaking. Today, less than 10 percent of my students come from a farm
setting. While some may live in the rural setting, they do not farm and most
have no intention of making production agriculture their profession.
Luckily, they are interested in many areas of agriculture that support the
farmer. This change in the audience, from the farm boys of my father’s
experience to the agriculturally illiterate of my era, makes the agricultural
education instructional model even more critical. For example, rather than
students raising large livestock animals or field crops, I have to apply those
same principals toward growing rabbits, guinea pigs, fish, dogs, cats and
ornamentals. I rely more on farmers as partners in teaching. They employ
many students, teaching them how to work on a farm that belongs to another.
I must juggle the special requirements of students who engage in job shadow
experiences and research agriscience projects and exploratory efforts to
discover their niche in agriculture through SAE. I am a master facilitator
at engaging non-farm students in the school greenhouse, fish lab, garden plot
and pond area. Every experience is a vital part of the pedagogy that goes
on in my classroom.
We can share and learn much from student successes and challenges that
enhance overall growth through experiencing agriculture. I know every
reader has accounts to share of student success. I’m no different and will share
a story of a non-farm freshman who showed up in my class one day. He lived
out in the county, had a pet dog and had no real option for starting a familiar
type of SAE project. So I agreed that for his SAE he could raise and
monitor his dog while volunteering in our aquaculture lab in the summers.
Over the course of his agricultural education career, his interest in animals
grew and we arranged for a job shadow experience with a local veterinarian.
The vet was so impressed with the young man that he offered him ride-along
opportunities through the summers. His SAE expanded as well as his participation
in FFA activities, where he developed his leadership skills.
As a result of those early years in a complete agricultural education
program, that young man entered the University of Wisconsin-River Falls majoring
in pre-vet medicine. Recently, his professor at River Falls nominated him
for a special pre-vet research program. He conducts research in cooperation with
his UW-RF professor, his mentor vet from high school and a professor at the
University of Wisconsin veterinarian school in Madison. Participation in
this program will allow him to forego the application and selection process at
UW vet school. When his undergrad education is complete, he will automatically
be a first-year vet student. He is that much closer to his dream of becoming a
large animal veterinarian.
This young man is living proof of the value of a complete agricultural
education program. Would he have had these same opportunities if he had just
taken biology and anatomy classes? Perhaps, but I don’t believe he would have
achieved the same level of success as quickly. He’s a great example of
hitting the sweet spot of the three-circle model where instruction, SAE and FFA
work together to set a student’s career trajectory. Now, I am sure I don’t
get all of my students to that spot, but I work hard every day, just like my
father did, to make all three components of a complete program a reality for my
students. They may not be farm boys anymore, but the agricultural education
instructional model is still the best way to get young people excited and
engaged in the diverse and ever-changing industry of agriculture, train our
future community leaders, and create an agriculturally literate society.