Looking toward a brighter future, nearly 300 agriculture teachers gathered in La Crosse for the Wisconsin Association of Agricultural Educators Professional Development Conference.
Becky Wirkus, Wisconsin Association of Agricultural Educators president, said agriculture is a diverse topic that is always changing. Their curriculum has to reflect the latest changes in technology while casting a wide net to recruit students of all backgrounds.
“In the United States, if we don’t have people who are willing to put in the work and effort to either be a dairy producer or raise livestock, we are going to have to start having bigger conversations about where our food is going to come from in this country,” Wirkus said. “A lot of people just take for granted that they are going to go to the grocery store and food is going to be there.”
According to Wirkus, they used inquiry-based teaching methods to give students critical thinking and problem-solving skills that can be transferred into any career. Agriculture education in 2019 is more than just sows, cows and plows. More than 400 careers in Wisconsin are connected to agriculture, and they need more than farm kids to fill them.
“We have those livestock animals raised, we have some milk in the bulk tank, it has to be processed,” Wirkus said. “We need food scientists. We need food analysts. We need packaging people. We need marketing people. There are all kinds of jobs that are tied to agriculture where you may not be directly on a traditional production farm.”
Even if students do not enter the food industry, Wirkus said agriculture courses are opportunities to learn how food is produced. She added Americans spend 10 percent of their income on food, whereas other countries spend more than half. The low-costs come from efficiency in the industry, but the challenge is to find a balance that lets farmers make a sustainable living without raising food prices for families.
“Because if that number goes up higher, what things are they going to have to cut out of their budget?” Wirkus asked. “Family trips, concerts, sporting events and whatever else are going to get cut out of the budget because let’s face it, we all need to eat.”
She also pointed to a need for agricultural educators. Wirkus said there has been a shortage of teachers in the field for the past five years, but active recruitment has helped fill the gap.