Agriculture education: Struggle to fill open positions

Published: Sep. 22, 2016 at 6:47 PM EDT
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At a time of high enrollment in agriculture classes, it is a struggle to fill open positions. According to the 2015 survey from the National Association of Agricultural Educators, there was a 287 Ag-teacher-deficit across the country.

“We're finding it very difficult to find homegrown teachers right now in our county,” said Eric Fitzgerald, Rockingham County Public Schools Career and Technical Education Director. “You think about it, Rockingham County is the number one Ag county in the state of Virginia, yet we don’t have student teachers coming here. So we don’t see a lot of teachers come back in the county.”

Virginia State University and Virginia Tech are the only two schools in the Commonwealth that provide agricultural education degrees. But right now, those programs can not keep up with the demand.

Codi Jo Wheelbarger graduated from Turner Ashby High School, got her Agriculture education from Virginia Tech, and later returned to Turner Ashby to teach.

“We’re not producing as many teachers in Virginia as we used to,” said Wheelbarger.

She started her career in a provisional teaching position in Southwest Virginia until she was fully certified. That provisional position was only available because there was a need for Ag-Ed instructors in Pulaski County.

“Ag teachers are jacks of all trades. So we have to get credits in each of those trades,” Wheelbarger said.

She had to take additional coursework online, because it was not offered in her undergrad degree from Virginia Tech.

She has since earned her masters and her teaching license.

“The universities used to have very strong agricultural education programs, namely Virginia Tech, in our state, and those programs over the years have kind of dwindled,” said Fitzgerald. “There’s been less emphasis on producing teachers and more emphasis and research and some other areas of agriculture.”

Agriscience teacher Sarah Smith grew up in Augusta County on a beef cattle farm.

“I was in 4-H and FFA,” said Smith. “Went to Tech, majored in AgriScience, and then got a masters degree in career and technical education.”

Smith knew she wanted to return to Augusta County to pursue her career. It took two years before there was an opening at Beverley Manor Middle School.

“It's more than just plows, cows, and salves. And more than just being out on the farm and working,” said Smith. “There's a lot of career opportunities related to agriculture that are becoming pretty high-tech.”

Farming writer and broadcaster Jeff Ishee has been studying the industry for 20 years. He says technology in agriculture is everything. One farmer can now accomplish what it took three farmers to do not too long ago.

“You have computer-guided tractors, you have GPS systems, you have drones that are becoming very popular,” said Ishee.

This sophisticated level of advanced farming reaches far beyond the seed and feed taught in generations past. Smith’s middle school agriscience students routinely use Chromebooks to prepare presentations in classrooms where they also learn how to use a bandsaw and drill press.

The ability to teach so many different disciplines - and the required 39 credit hours, which includes student teaching - makes Agriculture a difficult endorsement to get on a teaching license.

“We aren’t pulling in as many teacher candidates in as English, or Social Studies or Math,” added Janae Bickhart, Broadway High School Agriculture teacher.

Bickhart is in her second year at Broadway, where she is also an FFA adviser. She graduated from Penn State’s Agriculture Education program, which offers the required coursework needed to qualify for an Ag-Ed teaching license.

Bickhart was one of three out-of-state instructors recruited by Fitzgerald to work in Rockingham County schools. Fitzgerald says recruitment is needed in Shenandoah Valley classrooms as well, in order to foster the next generation of local Ag teachers.

“We’ve asked our CTE teachers to start thinking ahead, identify key students who have an interest and really like the curriculum material,” said Fitzgerald. “And encourage them to be teachers.”


Agriculture education’s deep roots in the Shenandoah Valley started with the FFV - Future Farmers of Virginia. This organization was the predecessor to what's now known as the FFA (Future Farmers of America), and it began in Weyers Cave.

The group has close to 7,700 chapters across the country with more than 610,000 members. That outreach makes it possible for local students to network with national FFA officers like Nick Baker from Tennessee, who recently visited Beverley Manor Middle School.

“The Department of Labor has identified over 300 careers that are available in agriculture,” said Baker. “Typically people immediately go into production farming, which is invaluable, but there’s science and technology, engineering and math that goes into the production of agricultural products. So the exposure that these students get in this classroom is invaluable.”

FFA is a co-curricular club at Turner Ashby High School, and it boasts 100% enrollment - meaning all 220 agriculture students are FFA members.

At Beverley Manor Middle, 8th grader Trevor Mish serves as the school’s FFA president. In addition to the hands-on technical skills, Mish says he’s learned leadership, speaking and presenting skills.

FFA is a big time-commitment in addition to the work some of the students have to do at home. Mish has daily chores on his family’s farm.

“We have a lot of students who show in the market animal shows for example, and they are up in the morning feeding and working with their animals,” said Smith. “Then they get to school and then when they go home they have homework to work on as well as take care of those animals every afternoon.”

The FFA motto is “Learning to do. Doing to learn. Earning to live. Living to serve.”

That’s actually what Clay Graham and Isabelle Leonard are accomplishing this year. Graham recently graduated from Buffalo Gap High School and Leonard graduated from Riverheads High School.

Both are giving back to the organization by deferring a year of college to serve as Virginia statewide officers.

“I have learned so much about agriculture as a whole,” said Leonard. “I come from a dairy farm, but I have since gained knowledge the entire agriculture industry and leadership experiences.”

It is difficult for local school systems to keep up with the agriculture industry’s changing technology.

Wheelbarger says FFA plays a critical role in preparing students for a career.

“FFA is top notch and it is the reason why we are able to continue to do a lot of what we do,” she said.


To learn more about many of the topics explored in this WHSV special report, check out the Related Links section!