At 23 and just a year out of college, Blake Anderson is already deep into his career as the agriculture teacher at Nodaway Valley Schools in Greenfield.
Since starting last July, he’s been developing his curriculum and looking for ways to add more science and math into traditional middle and high school agriculture programs, like animal and plant sciences. He’s working to incorporate the school’s newly-built greenhouse into his instruction sequence. And Anderson is generating enthusiasm for the school’s FFA program to provide students a broader range of experiences in and outside of Adair County.
“I’m getting great support here at the school. and I really like working with the kids. It’s really exciting to show them all that you can do in agriculture today,” said Anderson. “I’m definitely happy with my choice.”
School districts all around the Iowa are hoping there are many more young people, like Anderson, who are excited to become agriculture teachers. That’s because the supply agriculture teachers is getting tighter, just as ag education is catching on with middle and high school students all over the state, they said.
“It’s really becoming a very serious issue for districts,” said Joshua Remington, executive director of the Iowa FFA Foundation. “By 2015, there could be districts that just won’t be able to find ag teachers.”
Shortfall on horizon
Wade Miller, professor and interim chair of Iowa State University’s (ISU) ag education and studies program, said all of the numbers point to a coming crunch of ag teachers in Iowa and all over the Midwest. “Finding an ag teacher is really becoming a big issue for a lot of school districts,” he said.
Part of the shortage is a result of demographics. ISU surveys show that there’s likely to be a larger-than-typical number of veteran ag teachers retiring in the next few years, Miller said.
In addition, people with ag education degrees are often in demand by agribusiness and others, Miller said. “Ag educators are often sought out by agribusiness companies because they have a broad range of experiences and are good at communicating,” Miller said.
In a typical year, there are 20 to 30 openings for ag teachers in Iowa, Miller said. Because ISU graduates only about 20 new teachers each spring, supplies are very tight, Miller said. And Iowa can’t look to neighboring states to fill in the gaps, because those states are also struggling to find enough ag teachers, he said.
Meanwhile, more and more Iowa middle and high school students are enrolling in agriculture classes, according to Miller and Remington. And it’s not just in rural areas, they said.
“The interest in ag education is really high all across the state,” Miller said. “There are a lot more non-traditional students taking classes because of the added science components we have in ag education today.”
Adding ag teachers
He noted that several districts in the states have added a second, or even a third, ag teacher to keep up with the demand.
Remington said ag education is catching on in more of Iowa’s urban areas because students are interested in areas linked to agriculture, like local foods, biotechnology and the environment. “In places, like Central Campus in Des Moines, enrollment has just exploded,” he said.
To ease the ag teacher shortage, ISU and state officials are working to show young people about the strong demand for graduates and are developing mentoring programs to attract more students into the profession, Miller said. The ISU agriculture education program is asking the teachers to identify high school students who are interested in teaching agriculture, and the university is contacting those students to tell them about their program and the strong job prospects.
ISU and others are also working to create scholarships to help offset the higher costs that students in ag education often face when they move off campus to do their student teaching, Miller said.
Attracting young people
It all boils down to attracting more young people like Blake Anderson into the profession.
For Anderson, who graduated a year ago from Northwest Missouri State University and still farms part-time with his parents and siblings near Nodaway in Adams County, a career in ag education came naturally.
He’s always been interested in agriculture. He owned his own cow herd by the time he was 14 and has always worked on the family farm, which raises row crops and cattle, and also direct markets beef to local consumers.
And education runs in the family. Blake’s father, Howard, was a long-time teacher at Corning High School (now Southwest Valley High School) before retiring recently to farm full time. His mother, Deanna, is a para-educator at Corning elementary school.
“In high school, I was mostly interested in ag business and finance, but I decided to go with ag education,” said Anderson, who is a member of the Farm Bureaus in both Adair and Adams counties. “I like it because you are able to integrate a lot of different areas of agriculture in one job, and it’s a great way to show the positive side of agriculture.”
Farming a plus
Anderson said his involvement in a working farm is also a big advantage in his teaching. Even in mostly rural Adair County, many of the students taking agriculture classes don’t live on working farms, Anderson said. “But most of them have grandparents, or maybe an aunt and uncle on the farm, and they are interested in agriculture,” he said.
Anderson has found that the most popular classes are animal science and crop production, along with the shop-type classes, such as electricity, construction and welding. He is also hoping to build into FFA’s Curriculum for Agricultural Science Education program, which is designed to beef up the science in agriculture education programs.
Anderson, who participated in the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation Black Sea study tour last summer, has also used his love of travel to help his students learn about farming in other parts of the world.
“I’ve talked to my students about agriculture I’ve seen in other parts of the world,” he said. “I think it helps them get a more holistic view of agriculture around the world, not just in Nodaway Valley.”