The unconventional agriculture program at Lone Oak High School is so much more than sows, cows, & plows!
"This is not your father's Ag class," laughs teacher Kirby Green as she describes the unconventional agriculture program at Lone Oak High School. Kirby herself is not what you'd imagine when it comes to ag teachers. At 24, she is young, hip, and vivacious. She typifies the unconventional department, which also includes instructors Coye Elliot and Brittany Forgey. The trio are taking a fresh vision and their ardor for all things ag to open doors of discovery for new generations.
"The agricultural landscape has changed dramatically," explains Kirby. "In the 1950's, nearly 70% of Americans were involved in some sort of production. That is down to 2% now. But we are also able to do a whole lot more with less. One farmer now may represent the feeding of 160 people whereas back then, they may have just been feeding their own family. The new farmer gives rise to agribusiness such as agri-tourism, farmers' markets, niche markets, product development, business management, and on and on the list goes. It's a field that is constantly on the move. To see how much has changed even in the time since I graduated from high school is amazing!"
Kirby explains that the vast changes in American agriculture over the past sixty years are the very reason schools need to approach ag education in a way they never have before. "It's not just about producing crops. We need leaders and innovators in technology, business, research, and more. I know all of our students will not go into careers that are directly related to agriculture, but our main goal is to develop our students as people by making them effective leaders and communicators. If we can accomplish that while getting across the importance of these topics to the students, then we are successful.
"Most of the students at Lone Oak are urban. They live in subdivisions, not on farms. Sometimes the simplest of things could escape them," jokes Kirby, "like milk ultimately doesn't come from WalMart! And when you look at our students, you'd never imagine them as being involved in the ag department. They are very non-traditional when it comes to ag."
When Coye Elliot came to the department six years ago, he could see potential. The program of about 50 students started to grow. Before long, a second teacher was needed, and Brittany joined the faculty, becoming the first female ag teacher in McCracken County. In just a few more years, the program had over 500 students and three, full time teachers.
"All three of us have different strengths. Coye teaches agriculture construction, wildlife resources, and greenhouse. Brittany teaches agriculture and animal science along with agriculture math. And I focus on science, floral design, and contemporary issues, even touching on how agriculture and social media intersect.
And even in the realm of production, running farm equipment nowadays is more like running a NASA operation!" Students can study a vast array of topics, and they learn life skills like how to prepare proposals, how to network, how write resumes an interview for jobs, and how to make presentations. "We are the melting pot of ag programs here. And when we transition over to the new high school, we will merge the various strengths of everyone involved." And the learning is not just academic. Students take concepts presented into hands-on activities. "We do all kinds of fun things," says Kirby. "We make homemade chia pets, grow plants in the greenhouse, design and execute landscaping, hatch duck eggs, and raise tilapia, hens, and rabbits." The students even have a daschund named Riley. There's also Chicken Little, the school rooster. "I can guarantee that he's the most famous rooster in Lone Oak," laughs Kirby.
"These are things that come with great responsibility. They take on the task of being in charge." Students even learn how to grow the ag program itself by learning about grant writing. In 2012, the school was awarded $5,000 from Lowe's Charitable and Educational Foundation to build a new AgriScience Learning Hub. "This was built by students, and they are in charge of raising fresh fruits and vegetables and tilapia for the cafeteria. It also affords them the ability to get into research of organics.
"They learn what it means to manage and maintain such a project. We have a student greenhouse manager, for example. That person is in charge of a nearly $40,000 operation. They have to manage other people, budgets, and any problems that come along. This is really a place to develop leadership skills. They love the responsibility, and when we ask for their help, the rise to the occasion." Students have made presentations to the Department of Agriculture and even met with the Governor on key ag issues.
The program has inspired several students to pursue careers that they would have never imagined before taking ag program classes. "Kelsey Morris is a great example," says Kirby. "She was placed with a female ag teacher, and she wasn't happy about that. She was shy, and from what I could tell, not very happy. She really blossomed here, however. She became the greenhouse manager, FFA president, and turned into a great public speaker. She's a freshman at UK now, and she's studying to become an ag teacher herself. You never know what will inspire a student. One of our students really took to turf management, and now his goal is to work at Augusta National Golf Club. Another student is getting into biotechnical technology."
The prep work Kirby, Coye, and Brittany are doing even extends beyond high school. "We have dual-credit courses," explains Kirby. "They are getting college credit right here in high school. It's not out of the question for them to graduate and go into college with 35 hours. We're also reaching middle and elementary students through our mentoring program." The students work with younger children and introduce ag principles through topics such as science and math, bringing textbook illustrations into real-world, hands on experience.
"This whole thing is fun to watch," laughs Kirby. "We like to recruit students who really have no idea what we are all about, and we can open up a huge world for them. They come out as better communicators and leaders. Sometimes in the teaching realm, things get stuck. Something works, so we just leave it the way it is. But the world around us keeps changing. I'm glad to be a part of a program that is looking forward and creating leaders for today and the future."