MORRIS, MINN. – Just like her frequent lecture topics — corn, cattle and ethanol — Natasha Mortenson is a bit of a commodity herself.
As an agriculture teacher, she can do it all. Welding? Her favorite subject. College-level horticulture with an emphasis on genetics? She finds it challenging, but fascinating.
Mortenson frequently puts in long hours outside the classroom, ferrying Future Farmers of America (FFA) members to events, working in the greenhouse, or checking on students who are working at Riverview, the local dairy, which also happens to be the state’s largest.
“It’s a lifestyle, not a job,” she said. “It’s a very different kind of teaching that’s not for everyone.”
Teachers like Mortenson are hard to come by in Minnesota, where over the past five years, there’s been a 29 percent decline in the number of licenses held by agriculture teachers — the second-biggest drop by subject area, just behind family and consumer sciences.
Nationally, hundreds of ag teaching positions are expected to go unfilled in coming years because of a shortage.
Yet, agriculture plays a vital role in Minnesota, home to such industry giants as Cargill, General Mills and Hormel. The agriculture and food industry sector is the state’s second-largest employer, providing high-paying jobs that transcend traditional roles on the farm.
That’s why schools — particularly rural schools — covet agriculture teachers. But it’s not easy to find them.
Many school leaders recruit directly from college campuses, while others are forced to seek special permission from the state to allow teachers to work outside their licensed subject area.
Or in the case of Fertile-Beltrami in northwest Minnesota, school leaders brought an 80-year-old teacher temporarily out of retirement while they searched for a new ag teacher.
“I think that says a lot about how desperate we are to find agriculture teachers,” said Fred Nolan, executive director of the Minnesota Rural Education Association. “We won’t let our ag teachers die. And if they do, we’ll go dig up the bodies.”
‘You recruit. You network.’
The pool of agriculture teachers is so small in Minnesota that many schools let their programs go idle after a resignation. Others seek permission from the state to allow a teacher to teach outside their subject area.
More often, though, schools recruit aspiring teachers from college campuses.
“You simply cannot post a position and expect you’re going to get enough applicants,” said Dennis Laumeyer, superintendent in the Benson district, in western Minnesota. “You recruit. You network.”
In some ways, schools have had a hand in creating the shortage by cutting back on electives such as agriculture. Others have reduced the number of extra hours paid to ag teachers to do things like managing test crops during the summer or supervising students participating in county fairs.
But a key barrier to producing more agriculture teachers is the fact that the University of Minnesota’s Twin Cities campus is the only school in the state offering an agriculture education degree. Last year, the University of Minnesota-Crookston stopped offering it.
“It’s sometimes hard to take kids from the farm and bring them to the Twin Cities,” said Rhonda Bonnstetter, chairwoman of the Education Department at Southwest Minnesota State University. “Sometimes that’s not a good fit, but it’s the only one we have.”
Groups such as the Minnesota Agriculture Education Leadership Council, the Minnesota FFA Foundation, and the Minnesota Agriculture Educators Association are trying to spur interest in careers in agriculture education through scholarships and other initiatives. Similarly, the University of Minnesota is leading a new teacher induction program designed to improve the retention rate.
One of the biggest obstacles to both recruiting and retaining agriculture teachers is the fact that they are often lured away by agribusiness.
“When you graduate from college with debt, it’s hard to say no to a $55,000 salary, a company truck and a cellphone,” said Sarah Dornink, executive director of the Minnesota Agriculture Education Leadership Council.
Brad Greiman, an agriculture education associate professor at the University of Minnesota, said that over the past 11 years there’s been an average of 32 agriculture teacher vacancies in Minnesota. During that time, the U graduated an average of 13 agriculture teachers each year.
He cautioned against viewing the supply of teachers as a reflection of schools’ demand.
Adding, expanding programs
“With all the budget challenges, I think there are a lot of people who think there’s been a decline in agriculture education programs in the state,” he said. “But that’s not what we’re seeing at all. We’re seeing interest growing, and schools adding or expanding programs.”
In Fairmont, near the Iowa border, community members raised $300,000 in about 60 days to restart an agriculture program after it had gone dormant for nearly 30 years due to budget constraints.
“Kids don’t grow up on farms like they used to,” said Dr. Brian Roggow, a large-animal veterinarian who spearheaded the Fairmont fundraiser. “That’s why having an agriculture program is so important. That’s where they’re going to learn the skills they need to find a job.”
School leaders in Fairmont tapped into the small but close-knit circle of Minnesota agriculture educators and found Amber Seibert, a recent graduate of the University of Minnesota who was teaching in Sauk Rapids.
By all accounts, Seibert has been a good fit for Fairmont. And many of the businesses that donated to the fundraiser continue to help the program, she said. For example, local veterinary clinics help with dissection labs, while local hog farmers help students learn about large-animal care.
“When you realize the fact that one in five jobs out there are related to agriculture, you realize the importance of what we do,” Seibert said. “I think some people forget their connection to agriculture. It’s my job to make sure our students don’t forget.”
More than ‘cows, sows, plows’
The way agriculture is being taught in Minnesota classrooms is also changing. More women are teaching it. More urban schools are offering ag programs as part of the farm-to-table movement. And classes focus more strongly on science and technology.
“It’s not just about cows, sows and plows anymore,” Greiman said.
The Morris high school program reflects many of those changes. Mortenson and a more recent hire, Nick Milbrandt, continue to work hard to make sure the program is evolving to reflect modern agriculture. Classes like food chemistry and bioenergy have been added to the mix in recent years, while stalwarts like welding and large-animal care have been maintained.
They’ve also kept a strong focus on the school’s FFA club. During Mortenson’s nine-year tenure, the club has grown from about 15 members to 100.
A recent inductee into the Minnesota FFA Hall of Fame, Mortenson said one of the keys to the program’s success has been community support.
Not only did local businesses pitch in when the welding shop needed to be remodeled, students frequently are allowed to shadow local farmers, welders and bankers to explore different careers.
“When you drive around town, it’s obvious the role agriculture plays in our community,” Mortenson said.
“With agriculture, we have the opportunity to bring kids back home to rural America, rather than always pushing them out to the big city.”