As soon as this coming school year, Oneida County could have an agriculture educator whose job is helping public schools work the county’s still-largest economic sector into classrooms.
A measure before the Board of Legislators’ August meeting would authorize hiring a dedicated agriculture educator based at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Oneida County. The educator would help prepare classroom teachers to work agriculture into their lessons across the county. He or she would visit kindergarten through 12th grade classrooms and provide direct instruction while also acting as a point of contact for anyone who wants to expand afterschool agricultural programming and ag-related career development.
Of 15 school districts in the county, only four have a formal agriculture program: Vernon-Verona-Sherrill, Remsen, Vernon-Verona-Sherrill, and Waterville. The goal isn’t necessarily to get a formal agriculture curriculum into a schools but to raise awareness and understanding of this vital sector, county officials say.
“The goal is to actually have the person right in schools, in classrooms throughout Oneida County and we really want that educator to expose the kids in Oneida County to agriculture and to help the teachers build the confidence to regularly talk about agriculture in the classroom,” said CCE-Oneida Executive Director Mary Beth McEwan.
The new job is component to the Oneida County Dairy Farmer Sustainability Action Plan that County Executive Anthony Picente Jr. developed to help the dairy segment in the county, and part of the county’s Farmland Protection Plan. Picente also recently released a county-written guide to help municipalities adopt farming-friendly policies in areas such as land-use planning, regulations and development.
Agriculture contributes about $100.5 million a year to the county economy, according to the 2017 U.S. Census of Agriculture. The survey identified 967 farms across the county.
“Having an educator in our local classrooms fostering awareness and interest in agriculture will further strengthen what is already the number one industry in Oneida County,” Picente said in a county statement. “This will give our youth an even greater opportunity to learn about the importance food production and service has in our community and the future role they can play in it.”
The position is expected to pay about $40,000, about the average across the nation, according to the National
Association of Agriculture Educators.
CCE has already received several applications, McEwen said, and the goal is to have the person in place for the 2019-20 school year.
He or she will use a New York version of a national Agriculture in the Classroom Curriculum designed to work agriculture into many school subjects at various grade levels.
The national organization lists an array of outcome goals. In the elementary grades, for example, one objective is to have students able to identify types of plants and animals on farms and compare them to those in wild landscapes, middle schoolers should understand such points as where labeling indicates the origin of food and fiber. In high school, one objective is students should be able to evaluate evidence for various viewpoints on topics like grazing, genetic variation, use of pesticides, farmland preservation and world hunger.
Agriculture can also be used across the school curriculum, as well as to teach soft skills, said county legislator Keith Schiebel, R-1, who retired in 2018 as agriculture teacher at Vernon-Verona-Sherrill High School. There, he developed a maple syrup program that raised money to help offset some of the program expenses while linking the work to lessons in science, engineering, math, marketing, and public speaking and giving presentations. Students learned such things as identifying sugar maples, understanding soils the trees need, how to measure the density of sap to know when it can be bottled, and how to market maple products.
“After school we say we’re going to meet and collect sap buckets at 3 o’clock. That’s a method of teaching responsibility,” Schiebel said. “Agriculture really allows us a broader latitude in teaching some of those soft skills.”
The number of agriculture teachers working in the 13-state northeast region of the National Association of Agriculture Educators went from 896 in 2014 to 1,737 in 2018. Agriculture programs roughly doubled in number, from 556 to 1,146. Schiebel said the growth likely reflects an increasingly broad view of agriculture as not just farm life but how food is obtained and distributed, with all that entails. One of his students from several years ago now works as a food inspector at the port of New York and New Jersey, Schiebel said.
“People used to have an image of agriculture as farming; that tends not to be a popular image. I think today the image of agriculture is becoming food, and I don’t know of any person that doesn’t get excited when you talk food. ‘When’s my next meal, what’s it gonna be, and am I preparing it myself,’ and certainly that opportunity to be more engaged in their own nutrition.”