East Grand Forks lies in the Red River Valley, surrounded by some of Minnesota's richest farm country. But when its high school tried to start an ag education program a few years ago, applicants were scarce and it landed a teacher only a few weeks before classes started. Two years later, when the post became vacant, it did not attract a single applicant, and East Grand Forks Senior High shuttered the young program.
"It's dead, unfortunately," said Principal Brian Loer, despite the district's enthusiasm. "If you don't have the teacher to teach it, you can't keep it off the ground."
Now, worried about who will educate the next generation of Minnesota farmers, legislators are studying ways to reward college graduates who go into ag education, including student-loan forgiveness and year-round compensation.
In testimony last month, members of FFA, formerly Future Farmers of America, told the House agriculture committees that the shortage of ag teachers could hurt one of Minnesota's bedrock industries.
"Although kids in rural areas have that background because they grew up in a farming community, they still miss out," FFA state treasurer Brady Wulf said. FFA rules, he noted, require each chapter to partner with an approved ag-ed course, so the absence of a program can prevent students from joining the leading group for aspiring farmers. "They're losing out on opportunities," Wulf said.
Quite beyond farmers, the state's multibillion-dollar food industry depends on a broad range of related professionals, including veterinarians, food scientists and ecologists, said Amy Smith, an agricultural education assistant professor at the University of Minnesota.
"Are we going to have the workforce we need in those areas?" Smith said. "It's hard to envision. How are we going to feed the growing population we know we're approaching?"
Nationally, the shortage of agricultural educators has forced hundreds of schools to close ag-ed programs in recent years or has stopped them from debuting, according to Ellen Thompson, a project director for the National Teach Ag Campaign.
In Minnesota, 42 ag-ed teaching positions opened for the 2014-15 school year, and six programs launched. Nationally, close to 100 programs remained without a teacher at the start of the last school year.
Smith said Minnesota faces a wave of retirements among ag teachers — while young college graduates find themselves drawn into other jobs. Agribusiness employers such as Hormel and Land O'Lakes are whisking away many of her students with attractive job offers, she noted.
"At the end of their college career, a business or industry organization can offer them far more than teaching in salary and compensation."
And now that a growing number of city kids have discovered urban farming and the farm-to-table food movement, the shortage is not just a rural problem.
At Highland Park High School in St. Paul, two teachers run the popular agriculture program, where potting mix and stuffed deer heads are among the classroom supplies.
Annie Dion, a junior, said she wanted to be a nurse — until she took the then-required Intro to Agriculture class and joined the FFA.
"Without all these classes, I would have had no idea," she said. "Especially in a city, you think of farming as hicks, not as the careers you can get out of agriculture."
She shares a natural resources class with senior Kaitlin Goulet, who said she plans to study agricultural management at the University of Wisconsin-Madison next year.
"I don't think a lot of people realize the importance of having agriculture in a city," Goulet said. "Your food just shows up at a grocery store and you don't really think about it."
Loer, the East Grand Forks principal, pointed out that even today, many high school students want applied skills, not a liberal arts college degree. He that said unless a postsecondary agricultural education program reappears in northern Minnesota — or state licensing requirements become more welcoming to out-of-state graduates — his students and many others will miss out.
"We've got to have places for kids who aren't your traditional, regular bookworms — who want to learn by their hands, who want to learn by turning a wrench," he said.