You instantly know the classroom at the back of Chester County High School in Henderson, Tenn., is not typical. Maybe it’s the raised herb beds surrounding the exterior door. Maybe it’s the room’s purple glow given off by grow lights simulating sunshine for dozens of potted plants.
It could be the chickens in the back corner, or the fact that the class discussion is revolving around the adoption of a dairy cow.
But perhaps what’s most atypical is the genuine interest most of the teenaged students appear to display.
“They’re really excited about agriculture,” said their teacher, Teresa Crouse, “and the best part is, they’re telling other students.”
Crouse is the agriculture, food and natural resources teacher at this high school in rural western Tennessee. She also advises the school’s FFA chapter, which has seen a surge of interest and involvement over the past year. Membership has grown from less than 20 to more than 80, and students in this booming chapter have been busy. This year they started a greenhouse, co-hosted an Ag Fair for 4th and 5th graders, and even took on city council. Meanwhile, enthusiasm for the program continues to grow.
“Thinking kids aren’t interested in agriculture is a bad misconception,” Crouse said. “Even the kids who don’t realize they are interested in it love it when they get here.”
As a shortage of qualified ag teachers threatens opportunities to advance agricultural education, Crouse and the Chester County High program serve as a bright example of what can be accomplished when ag education is prioritized.
Need for ag education
Several years ago, Crouse was teaching ecology when a classroom discussion exposed a troubling knowledge gap. At a school located in the heart of the state’s row crop production area, many students had no idea how their food was produced.
“They didn’t know ketchup came from tomatoes and French fries were made from potatoes,” Crouse recalled. “That’s when we started the raised beds outside my door, and kids would come after school to plant herbs and tend the garden. It gave them a hands-on way to make the connection, and interest really grew from there.”
The exposure to agriculture through Crouse’s garden club was just the start. Soon students were looking beyond the basics of food production to studying hydroponics and aquaponics. When Crouse took on the role of ag teacher in 2020, one of her first projects was clearing a school storage building to create a greenhouse for her ag science classes.
But Crouse said ag education is doing more than imparting knowledge. It’s changing students’ educational outlook. Crouse said she has seen students who struggled in a traditional biology class thrive in the greenhouse setting.
“It’s getting up out of the seat, getting your hands on it, and making those connections,” Crouse said. “You start to learn not because you’re writing things down or listening to me talk, but because you’re getting up and actually doing it.”
While several of Crouse’s students are farm kids who sought out ag classes with a clear goal for their future careers, most just stumbled upon agriculture as a science elective.
“I didn’t really plan to take this class,” admitted one freshman, “but now I love agriculture. Taking this class has changed my idea of what I want to do when I grow up.”
Success outside the classroom
Of the many successes for Chester County High School’s FFA program, perhaps the most significant was their successful appeal to their local board of alderman to allow chickens on school property for educational purposes.
The students wanted to study poultry as part of their animal science curriculum, but a city ordinance prohibited live chickens inside city limits. The students themselves prepared and presented their case to the mayor and board at a December 2020 meeting. The board agreed to add a special section to the current ordinance allowing the school to house 25 chickens for educational purposes. They are now the only chickens allowed in the entire town.
“The kids took ownership of that problem and worked together to achieve a solution,” Crouse said. “Their efforts will have a lasting effect on this program, and I’m encouraged to know these kids are our future leaders.”
“We know how important agriculture is to our future, but very few of our students grow up on farms anymore,” said Steve Rickman, a local Extension agent who works closely with Crouse and her students. “If we can reach these kids through the classroom or programs like 4-H or FFA, we can develop more informed consumers and we can better prepare the next generation of leaders.”
Learning to do in FFA
Rickman’s remarks seem to echo the official vision statement of the FFA. The organization, which consists of 700,000 student members in more than 8,000 chapters across the country, celebrates National FFA Week Feb. 20 – 27. It’s a tradition going back since 1948 — coinciding with George Washington’s birthday as a way to honor the legacy of our first president as a leader and farmer.
In an increasingly urban society, FFA may be one of the few links to agriculture for many high school students. For others, it may be their first exposure to career opportunities in agriculture outside of traditional farming. A recent report released by USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture and Purdue University shows a strong job demand for college graduates with degrees in agricultural programs.
For others, still, FFA may be their first encounter with leadership development or community service.
However, finding qualified teachers to continue to lead these FFA chapters is the organization’s greatest challenge, according to their own website. Despite increased interest in prioritizing agricultural education by many school districts, the University of Tennessee at Martin estimates nearly 6% of agriculture teachers leave the profession each year due to retirement, employment in other industries or simply being terminated by the school, leaving many ag program positions vacant.
In addition to teaching, FFA advisors are also working after hours and weekends taking students to contests conventions and camps.
“The only person in the building who may put in more work than the Ag teacher is the football coach or principal,” Will Bird, assistant professor of Agriculture Education at UT Martin, told the university's newspaper, The Pacer.
As part of National FFA Week, Wednesday, Feb. 24 is Ag Teacher Appreciation Day. You can bet there will be some students at Chester County High saying thank you to Teresa Crouse.
“It’s a very demanding career, but a very rewarding career,” Crouse said. “I love my students and am glad I have the opportunity to introduce them to agriculture.”