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Ag educators wanted: ND school fills position with three part-time teachers

CASSELTON, N.D. — Agriculture is central to the town of Casselton, N.D. It's everywhere and everything, with key representatives in food manufacturing, cattle, veterinary, grain handling and ethanol businesses.

But even here — 20 miles away from a metropolitan area and the ag education mecca of North Dakota State University — it can be difficult to attract a qualified high school ag teacher.

North Dakota State University is striving to increase the supply of ag teachers for schools like Central Cass when it was caught without options last August with the departure of their ag teacher.

To get through on an interim basis, Superintendent Morgan Forness tapped a tag team that brought a seasoned pro — Ted Johnson — out of retirement. He serves in a three-person teaching troika with Ann Ueland, a farmer from of Harwood, N.D., and agronomist Marie Hovland of Ayr, N.D.

Crisis to career

Things have changed since Johnson, 65, got into the career. He was raised on a diversified grain and livestock farm at Napoleon, N.D., and graduated from high school in 1971. He received his agricultural education degree from North Dakota State University in 1975 and taught at Lisbon, N.D., and Kindred, N.D., before taking an implement dealer position. When the farm economy collapsed, in 1981 he took a position as an ag teacher for West Fargo, N.D. In 1988 he went back to Kindred, and stayed there until retiring in 2015.

Ueland grew up in Minneapolis and moved to Moorhead, Minn., to study elementary education. She married a farmer, Jim Ueland, and the couple raised five children. She recently completed three terms on the school board and took a part-time ag teaching job because agriculture is "vital here," she says.

Hovland grew up on a farm at Argusville, N.D. She graduated from Central Cass in 2007 before getting her agronomy degree in 2013 at NDSU. She married Paul Hovland, who farms near Ayr, and they have a 1-year-old daughter. Forness recruited her and she's working toward certification, and is taking the Transition to Teaching course, newly available through Valley City (N.D.) State University. She thinks she'd enjoy a permanent post at Central Cass "someday."

The ag topic is "vast," Hovland says, saying it's good if two teachers can cover it all.

Students say a strong ag program is important.

Jerrin Baumgarten, a junior at Central Cass, wants to farm with his father, grandfather and great-grandfather, near Casselton. Johnson has been "a tremendous help" in building his awareness of agriculture, and ag teachers have played a significant role in "what I see and what I believe in."

Classmate Brady Sinner says he hopes to prepare to find a fit in his own family's businesses but that he can see through his teacher's example how education is a career possibility.

Rising tide

JoDee Free is assistant supervisor for agricultural education with the North Dakota Department of Career and Technical Education in Bismarck. The department on Nov. 7 listed only a single ag teacher position opening, at Williston, N.D., she says. All but one of the state's 89 ag education programs in high schools have a teacher, whether trained in four-year programs at North Dakota State University or counterparts. In five schools, instructors have been "alternatively certified," a practice put in place July 1, 2017, for ag professionals like Hovland. Those teachers have to have a four-year degree and take a two-year education program through Valley City State University.

Free credits the success to a "strong campaign of promoting ag education to our students" and says things have changed from three years ago when it wasn't uncommon to have six or seven openings in the state.

There are two NDSU student teachers this fall, and there will be six more on the market in the spring. For the 2018 and 2019 school years, NDSU is expecting another 15 student teachers each year. Free believes both South Dakota and Minnesota have filled their openings.

Bonanza of ag

All this is music to the ears of Forness, who is leading an expanding school system that is adding millions in infrastructure, including a greenhouse that will figure into the ag program.

Forness grew up in rural West Fargo, became a history teacher and relished teaching about the agricultural history of the region. He touts the town as the"birthplace of Bonanza farming," and says it needs to leadership through a healthy FFA chapter.

"We have at our disposal probably some of the most valuable ag resources we can expose our kids to," Forness says, noting students already this year have visited farm fields and ag businesses ranging from cattle breeding to crop seeds.

Central Cass officials have met with Adam Marx, an assistant professor of teacher education at NDSU as well as instructors at the University of Minnesota-Crookston, to help find a new full-time ag teacher.

Marx says NDSU's undergraduate program currently has 65 students. In 2014, there were only 30 to 35 undergraduates in the program. This is a happy circumstance after "relatively drastic" shortages about five years ago.

"We should have a sustainable supply of teachers," Marx says, noting that there have been cross-institutional collaborations and focused recruitment.

Brighter ahead

"I wouldn't say we're out of the woods yet," Marx says, referring to filling teacher demand. "But I see a very bright future ahead for agricultural education. We want to continue to interest people in the profession and advance agricultural education in the state so more students and citizens have more exposure to this content area."

Marx says of the 10 graduates he had in the past year, eight moved into high school positions and the other two went into graduate school for education — so all of them continued in the education field.

Forness says ag teaching posts might start in the $35,000 level and acknowledges that must compete with jobs for cooperative agronomists often start at $65,000 or ag sales posts that start at $85,000. Free notes that ag educators often can get extra summer contracts and extra pay for running FFA chapters as well, but the career is more than money.

Johnson agrees, saying he sees the career legacy around him as he runs into former students who are now running their own farms or agribusinesses.

"Yeah, there's probably professions where you can make more money, and there are some professions with less stress," Johnson says. "But for me, it's student-based and the people, profession and the industry. I've been pretty lucky in my 40-year teaching career."

Johnson says things are looking up. As evidence, he noted that at the National FFA Convention & Expo in late October in Indianapolis, four of the six national officers were enrolled in ag education majors.

"Not bad," he says, smiling.

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