Crop of Minnesota ag teachers dwindles while need grows

  • Article by: KIM MCGUIRE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 1, 2013 - 9:54 PM

In Minnesota, training takes place only at one U campus.

 

– 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.

  • related content

  • Natasha Mortenson, center, Morris Area High School’s agricultural educator, worked with half a dozen students in a greenhouse.

  • Natasha Mortenson, agricultural educator at Morris Area High School led a group of students.

  • Nick Milbrandt, center, new agriculture educator at Morris Area High School paid a surprise visit to student Timothy Uphoff, left, who is doing job training at Westmor Industries in Morris. Timothy’s supervisor, warehouse manager John Manska is on the right.

  • Natasha Mortenson, Morris Area High School’s agricultural educator, is in a field where openings abound.

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