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County teens mull agricultural careers

MIDDLEBURY — It’s National FFA Week, which means that more than 8,000 chapters of the organization formerly known as Future Farmers of America are reaching out to their schools and communities to shine a light on agriculture and agricultural education.
In Addison County, however, this week is winter recess. No school. No programs. No one to listen.
So before they scattered for vacation, the Addison Independent sat down with six county students who are also enrolled in the Patricia A. Hannaford Career Center’s Agricultural Academy, where the Middlebury FFA chapter is embedded in the curriculum, and asked them what they’d like to share with their community.
“Farmers are struggling,” said Brodie Martin of Addison, a senior at Vergennes Union High School. “Not just small farms, but large farms also. Everybody in the agriculture business is struggling.” Low prices are partly to blame, she explained, but so is a declining work ethic among younger generations. “Finding help is really hard nowadays.”
Agricultural education is also struggling, said Waltham resident Emily Jackson, who is also a senior at VUHS.
“A lot of high schools are getting rid of their agriculture programs or their classes aren’t being funded, so they can’t keep them up,” she said. “But really those agriculture classes are what educate kids about farming or natural resources.”
Some kids are even being discouraged from attending classes at the Career Center.
“When I went to sign up for this (Sustainable Agriculture) class, they were like, ‘Well, you don’t really have time,’” said Cornwall resident Kira Kemp, who is a junior at Middlebury Union High School.
Martin shared a similar experience.
“My guidance counselor told me it wouldn’t be in my best interest to go to Vermont Technical College and go into the dairy herd management program, or even come here (to the Agriculture Academy) for a second year,” she said. “‘Brodie, you don’t want to do that — you’re not going to go anywhere in agriculture.’ Well, yes I am going to go somewhere in agriculture.”
“No one is encouraging people to come down here,” Kemp added.
Which is a shame, because these bright, vibrant kids — and others just like them — are thriving here.
“I learned more in one week with Mr. T (forestry and natural resources instructor Aaron Townshend), than I had in the previous three years,” said John Bent, a Starksboro resident and junior at Mount Abraham Union High School. “I don’t learn well in the classroom,” he acknowledged, but because of what — and how — he’s learning at the Career Center, “I’m excited to come to school.”
Bent is working on a prototype flow meter for maple sap lines that would measure flow, vacuum and temperature and send the data to a sugarhouse computer, which, it turns out was designed and programmed by other students at the Career Center.
“We have incredible teachers here,” he said.
These kids don’t just learn by doing, however.
Addison Hubbell of Shoreham, a junior at MUHS, and McKenna Phillips of Bridport, a junior at VUHS, find themselves on opposite sides of the program’s Act 64 Debate Team, where three students must argue in favor of Vermont’s Clean Water Act and three must argue against it. Kemp and Martin are also on that debate team, which will compete at the state FFA convention in May.
“We have meetings and groups and assign ourselves homework,” Hubbell said. “Then we go home, research topics and come back and talk about what we find.”
Both Phillips and Hubbell hope to attend the State University of New York at Cobleskill to study dairy nutrition, though Phillips worries about her job prospects in Vermont.
“I’ll probably have to go out of state for work,” she said.
Martin has similar concerns.
“I’d like to manage a dairy farm in Vermont,” she said. “I’d own my own dairy someday, but milk prices are too low.”
Fortunately, the dairy herd management program at VTC teaches dairy and beef management together, she said. “There’s a better market and higher prices in beef.”
In the meantime, Martin has been researching the changing role of women in the industry and is preparing a TED-style talk for the state FFA convention this spring.
(Readers should note that five of the six interviewees for this story are young women, and all of them are FFA officers.)
For Jackson, National FFA Week’s stated goal of educating the community about agriculture has turned into a lifelong goal.
With her sights set on Cornell University or the University of Vermont, where she plans to study political science and agricultural communication, Jackson sees herself as a potential liaison between farmers and legislators.
Jackson found her inspiration in this when she attended her first FFA leadership conference in Washington, D.C., where she attended workshops, met with Vermont’s congressional delegation, and went to Capitol Hill to advocate for agricultural education.
“I realized I always want to focus on agriculture and government,” she said.
Bold and committed as these students may be, it’s not without some anxiety that they undertake their studies. Farm economics has become too unpredictable to make solid promises to people of their generation, and the wisdom of their elders will count for little if not delivered with increasing caution.
Kemp, who comes from a farming family, has given this a fair bit of thought, from which she distills two messages.
To previous farming generations, she says: “We’ve got your back.”
To the larger community, she says, “We need your support.”
Reach Christopher Ross at christopherr@addisonindependent.com.

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