At Mabel School, sixth-graders in Benjamin Brown’s agriculture class are stationed in the school’s vegetable patch. The field that plays host to the small garden shares duty as a playground for Mabel’s younger students, but the sprinting group of seven-year-olds in the distance are no distraction to Brown’s middle-schoolers, who are hard at work harvesting dried green beans to be replanted in the Spring.
The students are among the first groups at Mabel and Cove Creek schools to take advantage of agriculture classes at the middle school level, which until this school year, were only available at Watauga High School.
While WHS has a long tradition of strong agricultural education and one of the most successful FFA programs in the state, it’s Brown’s hope that by expanding the program to students in middle school, Watauga County Schools can improve ag education across the district and further connect younger students to their world.
“We have become so distant from the sources of our food — most people have little to no experience with the food growing process,” Brown said. “Our ag education program is focused on educating students on where their food comes from and the hard work and effort that is put into producing the food most people just buy at the grocery store.”
Brown said while it was important to expand his student’s understanding of the complex processes that bring food to our tables and to give them hands-on experience in the field, each of his students seemed to connect with different aspects of ag education according to their interests.
“My sixth-grade students are connecting the most with the plant science topics,” Brown said. “Every time I bring up gardening they are eager to share their own experiences and learn more about good gardening practices. My seventh-graders are starting to understand and become engaged with the reasons we need to preserve our land and resources to ensure a healthier earth. Currently, they are connecting with those ideas on a global scale looking at the amount of land, water and food imports and exports for different countries all across the world.”
Brown said his ag classes offer today’s middle-schoolers a much broader and more technologically connected focus than similar studies might have in the past.
“Most people assume agriculture education is the same as it was 20 years ago, and while in some ways that is true, so much has changed,” Brown said. “Agriculture is a viable field for everyone who is interested and everyone can have an important role to play in the field, no matter their interests.”
Brown said Ag classes weren’t limited to students interested in farming — the field had expanded to touch almost every aspect of modern life.
“Agriculture as a whole is an exponentially growing field, so the secondary education opportunities are increasing. Students interested in agriculture can do anything from welding to advanced biochemical research — the opportunities are endless. These classes give students hands-on Ag skills they can use to improve their lives, whether they take them for fun or they want to feed their families.”
Currently, Watauga County Schools offers ag classes at the middle school level at Cove Creek and Mabel School, but Superintendent Dr. Scott Elliott said the system hoped to expand the program in the future.
“We are very pleased with the reception our new agriculture classes have gotten at the middle school level,” Elliott said. “As a district, we are committed to sustainability and environmental education on several fronts, so we were proud to be able to bring these programs to our middle school students.”