ST. LOUIS (AP) — High school agriculture programs sprouting across the nation's Corn Belt are teaching teenagers, many of them in urban environments, that careers in the field often have nothing to do with cows and plows.
The curriculums, taking hold as school budgets tighten and the numbers of farms in the U.S. decline, are rich in science and touted as stepping stones for college-bound students considering careers in everything from urban forestry to renewable natural resources and genetic engineering of crops, perhaps for agribusiness giants such as Monsanto, Dow, DuPont and Pioneer.
Ag-minded students are in luck: Tens of thousands of jobs open up each year in the broader agriculture field, and roughly half are filled by college grads with actual ag-related degrees, observers say.
"There's a shortage of workers in a number of careers, and the numbers of those jobs are staggering," said Harley Hepner, the Illinois State Board of Education's chief consultant for ag education. "Schools that understand we can get students in the ag program know they're going to be taxpaying citizens with good-paying jobs."
Along with school programs, membership in Future Farmers of America is up to about 580,000 — nearly double its ranks of the mid-1980s. That spike dispels the notion the national organization is merely a haven for farm kids, given that the number of U.S. farms are on a long-term downward trend, shrinking another 4 percent between 2007 and 2012, according to the latest federal figures available.
Untold numbers of FFA members have scant to do with farms, as Rebecca Goodman illustrates.
In Indiana, where corn is king, the 18-year-old junior is her school's active FFA president but could never be confused for a country girl. Goodman, who's lived in Indianapolis since she was 3, had never been on a farm, and her experience with animals is limited to cats and dogs.
"The only thing I planted was a small garden, and the only thing that grew out of it were weeds," she admits.
Yet Goodman aspires to be a conservation officer, crediting tiny Beech Grove schools' fledgling agricultural sciences program with steering her that way.
Beech Grove's Applied Life Sciences Academy, unveiled in November 2012, is billed as a place of hands-on, frequently technical exploration of live plants and animals. Educators say it makes a connection, helping students who otherwise may grapple with comprehending concepts and theories in a traditional math or science class.
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