March 12, 2020
From animal care to welding, from food science to small engines, students enrolled in the Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted Public Schools’ agriculture education program are learning lifelong skills that will serve them well in future careers.
Along the way, they also are learning how to be productive citizens who contribute and volunteer in their communities.
“We’re providing kids with real world experiences in our ag department,” said Jim Weninger, HLWW ag teacher, “and it doesn’t matter which profession they enter down the road.”
Weninger, known as “Winnie” around the school, has taught ag for 36 years. He went through the 1980s and 1990s when the emphasis was placed on getting students onto a college prep track and a four-year degree. Now there is a resurgence in the technical trades and a dire need for employees with aptitude in industrial tech, construction and other hands-on skills. Students are looking for those types of classes, too.
Weninger, along with ag teacher Seena Glessing, has developed a rich high school ag program over the years that covers 21 different classes, including a course that aligns with high school chemistry requirements and a course that allows for concurrent college enrollment with the University of Minnesota.
In 2017, they expanded ag learning into the middle school grades. That requires every sixth, seventh and eighth grader to take a nine-week ag course each year. Plus, they serve as advisers year-round for about 126 FFA members. Strong emphasis is placed on community service projects — from building benches and birdhouses, to planting flowers around town.
“Service-learning projects give students the opportunity to demonstrate the benefits of having a strong agricultural education program in our local communities,” Glessing said. “By being visible, we can showcase our program to parents of younger students who one day will be active participants in the HLWW agricultural education program.”
In recognition of their work, Weninger and Glessing were honored with the 2019 Outstanding Middle/Secondary Ag Ed Program award for region three at the National Association of Agricultural Educators convention in December in Anaheim, Calif.
Yet, on a recent visit to their school, that was not what the teachers recalled as their most proud moments. Rather, it is what their students have accomplished during their short time in school and where they go afterwards.
“When you have students later invite you to their weddings and want you to be a part of their lives, that is what I am most proud of,” Weninger said.
Glessing, who has taught for 20 years, concurred, sharing a story about a shy former student who rarely spoke. By the time this student was a senior, she had come out of her shell and today works as a DJ.
“I think how things came full circle for her, how she grew and became a professional in her industry,” Glessing said. She also shared how vital it is when students return to their communities and give back as leaders and volunteers.
“That’s huge,” she added.
With the growth in numbers and ag-related classes and activities, HLWW recently hired a new ag teacher to help with middle school classes. Overall, the ag/FFA program looks like this:
The early years. Every sixth, seventh and eighth grader takes a nine-week course that covers a plethora of agriculture and technology subjects.
Sixth graders cover various units that introduce them to ag careers. Seventh graders take classes that cover power, structural and technical areas. Eighth graders have course work in animal and food sciences.
Ninth graders are encouraged to enroll year-long into an introductory agriculture course that covers all ag career pathways and introduces them to FFA and supervised agricultural experiences (SAEs). About 60% of HLWW’s ninth graders take this course.
Six career pathways to explore. Students can choose from six areas of study. They are:
1. Power, structural and technical systems. Courses, aligned with local manufacturing businesses in mind, cover welding, agricultural construction, small gas engines and basic homeowner instruction.
2. Food products and processing. Courses offer instruction, from basic to advanced, in cooking and baking foods.
3. Animal systems. An animal science class is set up as concurrent enrollment with U-M for four college credits. Along with classroom study, students take monthly field trips to area businesses such as local veterinary clinics, feed stores, feed mills, beef grower facilities, dairy farms and homestead creameries. A companion animal class allows students to explore small animal care.
4. Agribusiness systems. A work seminar class and on-the-job training helps teach hard and soft skills needed to succeed in the workplace. Students enroll in the year-long course for classroom instruction and then spend one to two class periods per day on the job site.
5. Plant systems. There is a strong need locally for employees with expertise in agronomy and plant science. Several courses are offered with curriculum dedicated to these areas — horticulture, landscaping and floral design/greenhouse management. A school summer program gives students additional instruction in soil, plant growth, integrated pest management and crop and vegetable production.
Students have provided landscaping around the community and at their new middle and high school buildings. They designed and installed landscape according to the plans produced in class.
They also maintain a 1.2-acre vegetable garden, manage a 15-acre crop variety test plot and raise plants in three greenhouses. The 28 foot by 48 foot greenhouse has computer-controlled heating, ventilation, irrigation and fertilization. Other structures are a 30 foot by 60 foot high tunnel greenhouse and a 20 foot by 30 foot cold frame structure used to harden plants. A portion of the crops produced in the garden and greenhouses are sold to community members through a Community Supported Agriculture business with more than 50 community shareholders.
6. Natural resources and environmental systems. A natural resources and wildlife class focuses on Minnesota wildlife and environmental issues and uses hands-on activities to reinforce instruction. Students have built ice fishing rods and wood duck houses; harvested and processed maple syrup from the school forest; and visited Camp Ripley to explore bear dens.
Community service, collaborations
Due to the high number of service-learning opportunities, Weninger and Glessing created a new course, Building Communities, where students will identify additional needs within the community. Examples of projects include a monthly school-wide backpacking event at the local food shelf, collaboration with community education on a food drive program called Project Caring, and floral arrangements made in class and delivered to area assisted living centers.
HLWW is fortunate to have an active FFA Alumni organization. FFA alum help plant and harvest the school’s 15-acre crop plot and they clean livestock barns at the conclusion of the Wright County Fair. They also provide funds for student scholarships, school curriculum and ag department supplies. They provided $12,000 for the high tunnel greenhouse that is used to grow vegetables for the school and CSA program.
Local farmers and businesses step up to help, too. Farmers donate equipment and time to assist in the school garden and crop plot acres. Manufacturing establishments donate welding materials for classes, a local sawmill provides lumber for wood duck houses and shop projects, and some local seed dealers donate seed varieties for use in school test plots. Centra Sota Cooperative provides all herbicides and fertilizers for plots. Munson Lakes Nutrition, a local feed mill, donated a chicken coop.
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