Lawmakers look at agriculture educator shortages
Editor’s note: The following article was written by Jonathan Mohr for Session Daily, a nonpartisan online publication of Minnesota House Public Information Services. Springfield High School Agricultural Education Teacher T.J. Brown testified before the House Ag Committee regarding the ag teacher shortage, and he and Mt. Lake Ag Teacher Tom Appel were interviewed for this story. The story was posted on March 9, 2015.
Minnesota’s farmers are growing older while the number of teachers needed to teach the next generation of agriculture producers is growing smaller.
This disparity has been discussed a number of times in the Minnesota House agriculture committees this session. And while nothing can be done to stop farmers from aging — the average age of farm operators in Minnesota was 55 in 2012 — several solutions to help solve the ongoing ag teacher shortage have been offered.
The House Agriculture Policy Committee considered two bills sponsored by Committee Chairman Paul Anderson, R-Starbuck, about the problem.
One bill, which was approved without opposition and referred to the House Higher Education Policy and Finance Committee, would establish a loan forgiveness program that provides $3,000 per year for licensed agricultural educators who agricultural educators who teach in grades 5 -12.
Eligible teachers could receive a payment of $3,000 or the balance of their loan, whichever is less, for up to five years.
“This is an attempt, if folks go into ag education and then are enticed by private industry with a higher paying job offer, it may incent some of them to stay in ag education,” Anderson said.
T.J. Brown, Springfield High School agriculture teacher and a past president of the Minnesota Association of Agricultural Educators, told the committee that debt load can push newly graduated teachers away from education. Because ag educators are well-versed in a number of subjects, they are in high demand in the private sector.
“This would try to equal that playing field and give those kids the opportunity to look at sticking with their major,” Brown said.
Another Anderson bill tackles the problem in a different way. It would establish a grant program designed to pay ag teachers to do additional work with extension students during the summer.
Anderson said most ag educators do a lot of work during the summer but the extended contracts schools used to offer to pay for that time have “gotten smaller or dried up altogether” due to shrinking budgets.
The bill, which was laid over for possible inclusion in an overall funding bill, provides a 1-to-1 funding match so local schools that pay a summertime teacher to work for 15 days would receive funds from the state paying for another 15 days of work. The grant funding would be limited to 30 working days.
Tom Appel, an agricultural education teacher in Mountain Lake, said the opportunity for field trips to fairs and ag businesses, not to mention that summer is the heart of the growing season, make it an ideal time to teach agriculture. But this opportunity is being missed for budgetary reasons, he said.
“The importance of this legislation on both bills, from the standpoint of improving and enhancing summer experiences along with loan forgiveness, it’s kind of critical for our profession, and to agriculture,” Appel said.