Growing Future Ag Workers for Area Farmers
From the Pennsylvania Association of Career & Technical Education summer newsletter:
“This is not your great grandfather’s farming,” said Karen Smith Burden, business and industry specialist with the Bucks County Workforce Investment Board. “Farmers now have a pitch fork in one hand and an iPad in the other.” It is this image that AGConnect, a program focused on helping Southeastern Pennsylvania area farmers start, finance, and grow their businesses, wants area CTE students to see.
According to agricultural program manager, Jodi Gauker, AgConnect’s main focus is offering business training to local farmers. But the organization also understands the need to establish future farmers in the area.
Ag Connect helps local farmers develop showcases for area schools. Students come to their farm and see what working on a farm entails. Grants are used to help fund the students’ visits. Gauker said that approximately 3,900 students go through the farms in a year.
“These showcases are the bread and butter of our business to school partnership,” said Gauker. For example, she said students visited Herr’s Food. There they learned about food and animal science as employees discussed feeding cattle snack foods and how to balance that into proper nutrition for the animals.
Erik Stark, executive director of Snipes Farm and Education Center, recently had a group of students come for a visit. Students from several area technical schools spent half the day with them, touring the farm and talking about operations and sustainability.
“AgConnect is very helpful. They are a great partner to help us educate more students,” said Stark. “There is an awareness aspect to the education program. What we want to do with the high school students is show them career choices, especially if this is something they are passionate about. We want them to be excited about working on a farm. It will give us a larger pool of employees who are interested in agriculture.”
Snipe Farm employees also go to the schools with programs. The summer program at the farm brings about 20 students to take part in a “seed to fork” project where they learn agricultural and environmental science skills.
Burden explained how the rise in organic foods and locally grown products has peaked students’ interest in agriculture. She added that the showcases really help students who are on the fence about their agricultural education see what a job in agricultural really involves. “They do not realize how much technology is in the agricultural industry.”
The need for workers in the agricultural industry is there. According to Burden, the agricultural industry is keeping pace with other industries in the area. According to state data, Burden said there are 420 agricultural employers with 5,200 jobs. “The projection is if we do not do more to entice people, the more the gap will grow. We need to promote the industry.”
But AgConnect is not stopping at the showcases. In March, AgConnect had a kickoff event at Delaware Valley College, known for its’ strong agricultural roots, where 40 people from area farmers to agricultural related businesses networked to sharpen their focus on developing future farmers.
Snipes Farm also has a community college work-study student at the farm, serving as their marketing coordinator. Staff at the farm also serve as adjunct professors. “Certainly the training we did with AgConnect grant money will help our summer program staff be better educators,” said Stark. “And it will be a better experience for the students who attend this summer.” We envision doing other youth and career development programs. We have gotten good feedback through AgConnect about the visits.”
Burden said that AgConnect is looking at providing more events and aligning their programs with the high school curriculum. Their partnership with Deleware Valley and the kick off has them looking at internship possibilities and perhaps taking high school students to visit the college as well.