On a Tuesday morning at Farmington High School, agriculture instructor Ken Schentzel is using the class pet, a chubby albino rabbit named Lightning, as part of the day's lesson on small animal nutrition.
"Right now this rabbit is living the good life," Schentzel says, explaining that since it doesn't use much energy and isn't pregnant, the animal only needs a "maintenance diet" to survive.
During the lesson, Schentzel, who has 35 students in his small-animals class, weaves in practical lessons about nutrition that also apply to humans and large animals — such as how similar a rabbit's digestive tract is to a horse's.
The class is one of seven electives that Schentzel, the school's only agriculture instructor, teaches over three trimesters. Each year, he has 350 to 400 students.
Though few metro-area schools offer agriculture classes anymore, most of Schentzel's classes are full, and the agriculture program — now in its 75th year at Farmington — is going strong.
"The big thing for a lot of my classes is I want kids to know how important agriculture is and how much it impacts their lives," Schentzel said. "I know it sounds kind of harsh, but we can live without tourism or technology, but we can't live without food."
These aren't your grandfather's "plows and cows" classes, though.
Schentzel emphasizes that today, agriculture education is about more than just farmers working in a field. He teaches classes on wildlife and natural resources, small engines, animal science, home maintenance and sometimes even landscaping and horticulture.
Students who are especially interested in agriculture can join Farmington's chapter of the National FFA Organization, also known as Future Farmers of Amerca, which Schentzel advises.
Schentzel became an agriculture teacher because he grew up on a farm, though not a working one, and was personally interested in many of the things he teaches. In addition to enjoying working with kids, he knew that teaching so many subjects meant he'd never get bored, he said.
Schentzel said that in the metro area, Forest Lake High School has a large agriculture department, and other schools may offer a few classes. But offerings are pretty scarce.
That may be changing, he said, because "there's a growing interest in the general public in knowing where your food comes from."
More high schools, including St. Paul's Highland Park, are adding classes, and agriculture teaching programs "see continuous growth," he said.
Relevant to everyday life
Agricultural education isn't just for farm kids anymore, though that's a common misconception, Schentzel said.
Even though Farmington borders rural areas and farmland, few of his students come from farm families or have experience with farm animals, though some have horses.
But many students have a real passion for the topics he covers. Some come into the class with those interests, while others develop them during the class, he said.
Learning what it takes
Junior Ashley Ibinger, who is in the small-animals class, wants to be a veterinarian, and she says the class has helped her "really think about the steps that you need to become a vet."
"He reminds us almost every single day how much school it takes and the kinds of things you have to do," she said. Many topics covered, from diseases to how hard it is to euthanize a pet, are things she wouldn't learn elsewhere, she said.
Students often sign up for Schentzel's classes, like his popular small-engines classes, because they want to learn practical skills, like how to fix a dirt bike or snowmobile, Schentzel said.
Relevance to students' lives and the opportunity for hands-on learning are key to students' interest, he said.
"I think the reason why kids like agriculture is they see more of a relevance," he said. "When you're talking about, 'This is where bacon comes from,' they can think, 'Hey, I just had bacon.' "
The classes offer students a "refreshing change of pace from the core areas," said Lowell Miller, an assistant principal who used to teach agriculture classes.
Schentzel finds that some kids who otherwise aren't the best students do well with him. "It's fun when you have these kids who are struggling in school and they come to your class and excel, because they think, 'Hey, this is what I want to do. I'm interested in this,' " he said.
'Talking the talk'
Miller said a major reason for the program's success is Schentzel himself — he's a one-man department. "With any elective, I think the teacher is really a critical, critical piece," he said.
He noted that Schentzel is good at building relationships with kids and can "talk the talk" with them since he's from the area and has his own hobby farm.
Alyson Kelly, a senior, lives on a hobby farm, has four horses and wants to manage a barn someday. She's taken four classes with Schentzel and said she appreciates that he gives students information on topics like humane farming practices, but doesn't tell them what to think.
Ibinger said though some students may come in looking for an "easy A," the classes end up being "a lot more than they signed up for."
"He makes it interesting by telling you his personal life stories," she said. "He has a lot of funny ones."