7 American High Schools Embracing Sustainable Farming in the Classroom
June 9, 2015 | AJ Hughes
Fifteen percent of the American workforce is employed in an agriculture-related career, according to data from the American Farm Bureau Federation. With agriculture increasingly encompassing math, science and business, along with innovative subjects such as biotechnology and aquaponics, more and more high schools across the United States are including sustainable agriculture as part of their curriculum.
The following seven high schools represent a sampling of institutions around the U.S. with sustainable agricultural educational offerings.
At Mansfield Timberview High School, students are experimenting with aquaponics by raising catfish and edible plants in a synergistic environment. They use an intermediate bulk container with a recirculation pump and bell siphon, and grow peppers, lettuce, eggplant, spinach, asparagus and fenugreek (a South Asian plant).
“Most of our kids are ‘city kids,’ so we try to make food production relevant for people with little or no land,” says Damon Miller, agriculture teacher at Mansfield Timberview.
Delsea High School horticulture teacher Gary Nelson introduced an aquaponic farming system to the high school’s greenhouse, giving students a practical and hands-on education about the symbiotic relationship between fish and plants in an aquaponics environment. Students also learn about the value of locally-grown food, health, and employment and entrepreneurial opportunities. This innovative program has gained the attention of other New Jersey educational institutions, many of which (including Rutgers University) have taken tours of the facility.
In September 2013, Joe Stewart, agriculture teacher at Redwood High School, established a sustainable agriculture program at the school. Students in the program learn about connecting with the Earth and nature through food. Not only do they learn how to grow food, but they are taught how food has been grown throughout history, along with economic, environmental and other impacts of food production. An 8,000-square foot farm teaches students how to grow food sustainably, as well as the importance of community as it relates to food production. Student volunteers and community groups help manage and run the farm.
After a long absence of agriculture classes of any kind at Harold S. Vincent High School, an urban agricultural program was launched at the school in 2012. Students learn about urban agriculture from working at on-site greenhouses. The facility also features beehives and an aquaponics facility. In only its first year, 216 students took advantage of the new agricultural program, which also teaches about biotechnology, urban gardening and landscape design.
Students in Madison High School’s sustainable agriculture career technical education program not only learn about sustainable agriculture, but they can also receive college credits. And if they complete the four “core” classes in the program (Biology, Introduction to Sustainable Agriculture, Urban Farming and AP Environmental Science), along with a senior capstone project, they are honored at graduation by receiving a neon chord to wear. Classes teach practical gardening, business and cooking skills. In addition to taking numerous field trips to farms and other urban agriculture businesses, students keep busy by working in the greenhouse and running their own market.
Food and Finance High School is New York City’s only culinary high school, but students there don’t only learn about food—they also learn about sustainable agriculture. Through a partnership with Cornell University Cooperative Extension, students at the school benefit from two onsite working labs—one is an aquaponic lab with 20,000 tilapia, and the other is a hydroponic lab where they grow lettuce and herbs and experiment with other kinds of plants. The labs are overseen by a Cornell University professor. Students combine work with learning, and find work-study opportunities at various food and agriculture businesses, including top New York City restaurants.
Quasar Surprise teaches sustainable agriculture classes at Avanti High School in Olympia, Washington. Her students learn about seeds, gardening, landscape design, soils, organic gardening and tree pruning. They took a field trip to the Evergreen State College Organic Farm, and were “garden buddies” with local elementary school students. They also learned about aquaponics by taking a field trip to an aquaponics operation, and participated in a local harvest festival. And due to the school’s proximity to the Pacific Ocean, students also learn about sustainable seafood production.
Rosco Vaughn, former executive director of the National Council for Agricultural Education, was a prophetic voice in 1999 when he wrote a piece for The Agricultural Education Magazine titled, “Do We Still Need Agricultural Education?”
He wrote, “Today, some individuals believe that little need exists for continued instruction in agriculture. They believe that teaching science and business skills will meet the food, fiber and environmental challenges facing the world. In some respect, these individuals are correct. In the years ahead, agricultural education will become more focused on the science of producing and processing plants and animals as well as maintaining a healthy environment. The business skills needed by successful producers and agribusiness companies will continue to become more complex and challenging. If agricultural education does not change to meet the needs of a rapidly changing world, we can expect to see little demand for this subject in the schools of tomorrow.”