Suffolk County looking at ways to get ‘ag-ed’ in schools

06/20/2014 8:00 AM |
In the Southold Elementary School garden, students not only learn about science; they put their math skills into practice by measuring and planning the garden’s layout. Since they also harvest and sell their produce, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone says he’d like to see similar programs implemented in other county schools. From left: second-graders Mae Dominy, Grace Zehil, Alyvia Apparu and Skylar Valderrama. (Credit: Carrie Miller photos)

In the Southold Elementary School garden, students not only learn about science; they put their math skills into practice by measuring and planning the garden’s layout. Since they also harvest and sell their produce, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone says he’d like to see similar programs implemented in other county schools. From left: second-graders Mae Dominy, Grace Zehil, Alyvia Apparu and Skylar Valderrama. (Credit: Carrie Miller)

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone wants more young people to know that, among doctor, lawyer, firefighter or police officer, “farmer” is also a viable career, and an attainable and realistic life goal.

The more people in farming, he says, the better off the county.

“[There is] a lack of familiarity among students and educators with career opportunities that exist in agriculture,” Mr. Bellone said. “If we cannot find a way to create the next generation of farmers, the long-term sustainability of this industry will be in jeopardy.”

To get young people interested in farming, he said, they need to be exposed to it early in life — and in the classroom. According to industry insiders, however, Suffolk County lags far behind other parts of New York when it comes to agricultural education opportunities, despite being the state’s leading region in terms of agricultural production and sales. This is all resulting in a void in the type of talent farms need to thrive in the 21st century, the county executive said.

The issue was first brought to Mr. Bellone’s attention in March during a meeting with North Fork growers at Ivy Acres nurseries in Calverton, where representatives from the Long Island Farm Bureau and Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County, among others, highlighted the need for a reliable, skilled workforce.

A follow-up meeting took place last month, at which K-12 and higher education officials met with industry representatives to discuss creating an agriculture-based curriculum for grade-school students and job training programs for those who want to pursue agricultural career paths in high school and beyond.

“We’re now in an age of high-tech agriculture,” said Joe Gergela, executive director of the Long Island Farm Bureau, who spoke at the March meeting. “There are many more opportunities and supports that growers need.”

He said expertise in robotics and mechanical engineering is needed to handle new-age tractors, irrigation systems and automated harvesting equipment. The entire industry will need the help of biology experts to help growers deal with issues related to climate change and water quality. And as times grow tougher, financial management and marketing professionals will be needed to ensure that growing operations are also money-making operations, he said.

“We want to expose students before they begin to make decisions about what they are going to do after high school,” Mr. Gergela said. “There is real opportunity here.”