Byline: MARY MARAGHY
At Wilkinson Junior High, agriculture students calculate the square footage of chicken coops, write essays about technology's role in cattle ranching and graph the weight gain of the pigs they are raising to sell.
A new horticulture teacher, hired this year at Middleburg High School, has students creating and selling floral arrangements for weddings, funerals and school functions.
Clay County's agriculture education programs are growing and thriving, thanks to ongoing support from administrators and the community. Statewide enrollment in agriculture classes is also on the rise, state officials said, and membership in FFA chapters is at a 25-year high.
However, in recent years, the state eliminated funding for junior high agriculture programs, said Raleigh Sapp, director of career and technical education for Clay County schools.
"But our school board said it's important. We'll fund it," said Sapp, who put himself through college selling calves, steer and chicken eggs while growing up on a Florida cattle farm.
"People don't realize agriculture is the mainstay of Florida's industry," he said. "Everything comes from the dirt. You'd have to go naked if you didn't have agriculture. These kids are learning real life, professional skills that the world is desperate for."
School principals decide whether to offer agriculture as an elective, which involves adding an FFA chapter, Sapp said. Formerly called Future Farmers of America, the co-curricular self-supporting club changed its name to FFA to eliminate the "farmer" label and misconceptions that agriculture is only for the uneducated.
"We'll never get away from that stigma," said agriculture teacher Kelly Mosely, who has 130 students in her program at Wilkinson Junior High School and 94 in FFA. Middleburg High's FFA club, with 140 students, is splitting into two chapters next year because it is so large. Keystone Heights, which has two FFA chapters and two agriculture teachers, plans to focus more on animals next year.
"Most of our students are really jazzed about animals," said Michael Boger, an English teacher who became an agriculture teacher this year in hopes of incorporating more FCAT skills into the program.
Boger said it's sad that the state requires students who score low on the FCAT to fill their elective quota with remedial classes with no room for agriculture.
Community support for FFA programs is phenomenal, as seen by the companies who spent thousands of dollars each year purchasing animals raised by FFA students at the Clay County Agricultural Fair, school officials said.
Mike Morgan, the fair's livestock superintendent, said often buyers will bid high not because the animals are that valuable but simply to support FFA. Wilkinson Junior High School's FFA chapter's 237-pound pig sold for $12,561. Meanwhile, parents built the school's animal barn and put up the fencing around it.
Recently, in Mosely's class at Wilkinson Junior High, some students begged her to let them skip their next class so they could stay in her classroom and research how to judge the quality of meat. She was flattered, but said no.
Because agriculture students are pursuing things they enjoy, the learning is disguised, Mosely said. Students learn decision making, critical thinking and leadership skills. They read and research horticulture, animal science, landscape design and now forestry, a new program at Middleburg High School. They do PowerPoint presentations on dairy cow breeds.
Last year, Mosely's students gave barn and greenhouse tours and mini agriculture lessons to …