Most farmers don’t have to worry about getting the crops in and making time for their algebra homework but at the Muscatine Ag Learning center in Muscatine, IA, the students face that very time crunch.
The Muscatine Agriculture Learning Center is a unique center that serves Muscatine High School and the community college. High school students in the agriculture program, the majority of which live in an urban environment, get hands on experience running the farm and in some cases, college credit. At the center the students are the backbone of the farming operations.
I was at the learning center at the end of April and while they had their oats in the ground, they were just starting to plant their corn and beans. Michael Jenkins, a junior at Muscatine High School, was the student primarily responsible for getting the fields planted. For Michael, who never grew up on a farm, the program has taught him a lot about how to run a farm.
“I’ve learned a lot about seed populations, and how to plant correctly and make sure my rows are straight,” said Jenkins as he sat in the cab of the planter. I watched as Jenkins skillfully planted the soybean field while Dave Tometich, ag teacher at the high school, followed along with a group of students, showing them how to check seed depth.
At the Muscatine ag center the students put in about 27 acres, 12 acres of soybean plants and 15 acres of corn. While that amount of land may seem small in comparison to other farming operations this center has a bigger concentration on education than making a profit. Dave Tometich laughed when I asked him how they balance the day to day farm needs with education – how do you run efficiently and still give the kids the opportunity to do it themselves?
“The fun part is finding the balance between the agriculture center, the greenhouse, and the classroom. We are unique in Muscatine and our program; we have a more project based education. And yes, we make more mistakes due to the influx and turnover in students but it’s a learning experience. The most important thing for us is safety. We want the student to learn and stay safe. There is no magic formula for us, it’s a juggling act.”
So how do the students balance running a farm, school, and outside activities? When I was in high school I just had to worry about getting to track practice and a couple pages of homework – I didn’t have the added stress of planting crops, choosing the right chemicals, and monitoring soil moisture.
“It’s a tough job but the kids make it a priority. I think they are more willing to put the effort in because they know it’s not something they can do other places.” explained Tometich “Luckily, with planting, it’s a chunk of time but not everyday. We try to be upfront and tell the students when we’ll need them and they just get the job done.”
At the center it was clear that the students were passionate about the work they did. I saw no idle hands, everyone either had a job or was asking questions. Part of the beauty of the program is the involvement each student has. With the unique dynamics of the classroom and agriculture center students can choose their own comfort level.
“Some students are going to be better in the classroom and others are going to be better doing things and problem solving on the farm.” Tometich explained. “Like a corporation you cater to your clients. It’s about what’s important to the students and giving them the experience in agriculture so they know what’s available to them as a career.”
Monsanto employees will be following the 2010 crop season from beginning to end on the Monsanto.com Crop Season site.