I speak with many businesses and organizations across the region regarding their current and future challenges and opportunities. The overwhelming challenge mentioned most often is finding a reliable workforce. Businesses need people to fill the gaps within their organizations. Without people, they cannot grow. Without growth, they struggle to survive.

In 2019 and after a 25-plus year absence of agriculture, food and natural resources (AFNR) courses in the district, Mankato Area Public Schools developed a public-private partnership which created a new AFNR pathway for students. Caleb Watson, career pathway coordinator at Mankato Area Public Schools writes, “During 2019, MAPS offered one AFNR course that enrolled 40 students across the district. Since then, our program has grown to include two full-time instructors, an over 2,700 square-foot greenhouse, an active FFA program, and over 350 students in 10 course offerings.”

Caleb claims this success “is directly related to our instructors developing a program/curriculum that meets our student’s interests and the needs of our community.”

Brynn Bohlke has long been involved with 4-H and FFA, and reflects on her experience by saying “I knew 4-H and FFA to be organizations that were exclusively for farmer’s kids to gather, show animals, and show off their hard work. It never occurred to me that there was much more to it than that. But of course, it wasn’t until I had the opportunity to be a part of the agriculture education program and participate in events and interact with the local agriculture community that my perspective drastically changed.”

Helping Bohlke change her perspective were instructors Ethan Dado and Robin Tidd. “They have done a wonderful job of being mentors and teachers to me about the world of agriculture and all it really has to offer,” Bohlke stated. “They’ve opened the eyes of many students —  including myself — to the possibilities within the industry beyond the harvesting crops and raising livestock. They’ve been able to show and truly emphasize that FFA is for all — and that goes beyond kids with farming backgrounds. FFA offers the chance to learn and build on top of things like leadership, creativity, entrepreneurship, careers, and skills that you will be able to utilize throughout your life.”

“When we can relate what we are teaching to the students' lives, that not only helps them understand the topic better, but helps them realize why it's important to learn,” said Dado. “It is our job as teachers to answer the question, "why are we learning this." In our AFNR courses, we can easily answer this by talking about food, fuel and fiber. Our students do not realize their connections to our industry until we connect them to the supply chain. Students also learn best by having hands-on learning on top of lecturing and discussions. Anywhere from 40 to 85 percent of our class time is spent on labs and hands-on learning. It also helps students of all backgrounds (rural, suburban, urban) understand why agriculture and natural resources are important and impact them.”

Tidd grew up in the city and recognizes the importance of students getting involved in agriculture education. “Taking agriculture classes and being involved in 4-H and FFA exposed me to careers I didn't know were out there,” she said. “I want to show students that you don't have to live on a farm to be involved with agriculture. Even if students choose to not go into a career within the agriculture field, it is important for them to understand where their food and other resources come from.”

Tidd and Dado have helped create catchy class names such as “Pets and Paws” for the Introduction to Animal Science course. “We work hard to build relationships with our students and once we get to know them, their strengths and interests, we inform them of future courses to take … we structure our classes so that every day is different! Throughout each of the classes we learn about different topics through discussions, labs, activities and presentations,” Tidd said.

Attracting and educating the future talent in AFNR doesn’t stop in high schools. Dr. Shane Bowyer finds “most students only see ag careers as on the farm getting dirty, driving a tractor, and milking cows. However, when we start to talk about technology and the business side of the industry, they start to see things a little different.”

Bowyer is the director of Minnesota State University Mankato’s AgriBusiness and Food Innovation program. He continues to remind students “these careers include data analysts, engineers, accountants and more. These are good, high-paying jobs that can be found in agriculture and food whether it is in a small town or the big city. Educators need to present these opportunities through examples, bringing in industry professionals, and taking tours.”

Megan Roberts, executive director of the Minnesota State Southern Agricultural Center of Excellence, says, “The Minnesota State Southern Agricultural Center of Excellence supports all Minnesota State system faculty and students to promote workforce development and career promotion in agriculture, food and natural resources. Our goals are to inspire students to pursue careers in this field, enhance educational opportunities, and engage with industry to meet workforce needs.” SACE holds summer camps, engages in secondary classroom visits, hosts professional development workshops and more.  

Educators and industry leaders are stepping up to the plate to support the workforce of tomorrow. If you are interested in joining this effort, consider being a mentor, speaking with a class, hosting students for a job shadow, or inviting a class to tour your facility. These things matter and students, more than ever, are looking for these opportunities to connect.

Whether students want to be a farmer, accountant, chemical applicator, business analyst, computer scientist, welder, machinist, teacher or business owner, there is a place for them in rural Minnesota.

It is said it takes a village to raise a child. It could also be said it takes a region to raise a workforce.

Talent in the GreenSeam focuses on developing talent and promoting careers in agriculture and food. Garrett Lieffring can be reached via email at glieffring@greenseam.org.

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