Agriculture classes find fertile soil Revised courses attract students


The agriculture courses Craig Bowers takes at Francis Scott Key High School don't have much to do with his goal to be a truck driver.

But the Taneytown junior already has put what he learned to use hatching a business venture for his parents.

Like a growing number of students flocking to agriculture courses at Carroll County high schools, Craig did not grow up on a farm. But he did start one.

A year and a half ago, he took about $300 and invested it in buying 30 laying hens and building a coop. He did it as a hobby, inspired by a retired neighbor who keeps a few cows and chickens and grows some crops.

After only three months, Craig recovered his investment by selling the eggs. Since then, his chicken farm has grown to 100 "layers," with another 45 on the way. But he has pretty much left the operation to his parents, Betty and Jim Bowers.

"My parents didn't want anything to do with it when I started," he said. "Then they got interested. We didn't think we'd be able to sell the eggs, but we had people calling. We didn't have enough eggs."

The venture hasn't made his parents rich -- they have kept their jobs as a sales manager and veterinary assistant. And Craig still wants to be a truck driver. He pointed to the tractor-trailer on his T-shirt.

"I love seeing the country," even more than farming it, he said.

About three years ago, Carroll County schools revised the agriculture courses they offered, in response to declining enrollment.

In particular, the catchall Agriculture 1, 2, 3 and 4 courses were broken up into specialized electives. Students can now choose from horse management, horticulture, small-animal care, veterinary science, forestry, natural resources management and crop science, among other courses.

It worked: Enrollment tripled the next year to more than 900 students, estimated Peter B. McDowell, director of secondary education.

"We have a much broader base of students," Mr. McDowell said.

Key senior Jamie DeGroft of Uniontown agreed. "Before, it used to be just farm kids coming in and taking the classes." Jennifer Grimes, like Craig, is a junior whose parents are not farmers, although her uncle owns a dairy farm in Taneytown.

She would like to work and live on a farm some day, she said, although she isn't sure how she's going to do that.

Unless you inherit a farm, the students say, winning the lottery is the only way to get one.

Jennifer could look for a job on a farm, but she said she believes farmers are not likely to hire girls to do work if they can get boys. "They don't think we're capable -- just from what I hear. I've never tried to work on a farm."

Jamie and classmate Marie Speak of Taneytown would have taken agriculture courses anyway. They come from farm families.

The increased offerings have also benefited the "farm kids" who plan careers in the footsteps of their parents, but in an era of more specialization.

In a county such as Carroll, the enrollment decline in agriculture courses three years ago couldn't be discounted as just lack of interest among students, Mr. McDowell said.

"We knew we still had a strong agriculture and agribusiness community here," he said.

In addition to the farms, there were nurseries, flower shops and other businesses related to agriculture. School officials felt they needed to match that with a strong selection of courses.

At the time, Dave Miller had just come on board as supervisor of career and technology education, with a strong background in agriculture as a teacher, state education specialist and officer in the national Future Farmers of America.

Mr. Miller has since moved to a job with Frederick County schools, but not before working with teachers to revise the agriculture offerings.

He also developed strong ties with the farming and agribusiness community, Mr. McDowell said, to support the program in the schools.

Jamie will graduate in June and continue the dairy farm owned by his parents, Charles and Carol DeGroft.

Marie will go on to the University of Maryland to major in agribusiness and minor in animal science. She may or may not return to her family's dairy farm, she said. She is the daughter of Bonnie and John Speak Jr.

"Agribusiness is a very broad field. I might not be able to stay here and do what I want to do, but I'll find something somewhere," she said. "I would love to get into public relations, management, sales, something like that."

Meanwhile, if there's hay to be unloaded at the family farm, she and her younger sister, Susie, unload it.

"My dad tells me what to do, and I best be going to do it," she said. "I have all sisters, and we do just as much work as any boy would do."

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