MANSFIELD, Ohio — Mansfield, Ohio, is historically more associated with the rust belt than the corn belt. But over the years, it’s built up a strong agricultural community, with farms and gardens in the city, in addition to rural farms around it.
This year, Mansfield Senior High School is helping students get more involved in agriculture by adding an agribusiness and strategic entrepreneurship program to its career technical education.
“We have all of these urban gardens coming up around us, and our school itself is really working towards building up that entrepreneurship aspect for our students,” said Nikia Fletcher, director of the school’s career technical education. “It made sense to have an agriculture program.”
Students in the program are learning about farming and business both in the classroom, at other farms and businesses on field trips, and in a new high tunnel the school added this year.
“This is something that we’re excited about,” said Sean Adams, the school’s agribusiness instructor. “We’re ready to build [the program], and I think it’s something that’s very good for our community.”
The agribusiness program is a two-year program for upperclassmen, who can earn college credits and industry-recognized credentials through the program. It includes an agriculture and natural resources class for ninth graders, aimed at helping them decide if they’re interested in pursuing more agribusiness education. There are also plans to form an FFA chapter at the school.
Right now, Adams is also teaching a greenhouse and nursery management course for juniors and seniors. For this year, he has six students in the class, and about 15 students in the program as a whole.
Adams coaches football at Mansfield Senior High School and has worked as a special education teacher before. He has a farm where he raises black Angus cattle and the occasional hogs or chickens, near Bellville, Ohio. When he saw an agribusiness teacher position open up at the school, he decided to give it a shot.
Before adding any program to its career technical education, the school completes a comprehensive local needs assessment that looks at how the program could add to the community. Agriculture was a natural fit because of the work other organizations, like the North End Community Improvement Collaborative, are doing on urban farming in Mansfield.
“We looked at the landscape of our community, and we said ‘this would be a great way to add to Mansfield,’” Fletcher said.
The program will also helps students explore entrepreneurship, by learning how to market the vegetables they grow, in addition to providing some vegetables for culinary programs at the schools.
“We want students to understand that they can do things with their hands, and they have a few avenues,” Fletcher said. “They can go to college, or get credentials and go to the workforce, or if they want to, be their own boss.”
The students in the greenhouse and nursery management class are getting the school’s new high tunnel ready for planting some fall vegetables, which they will harvest in February and replace with more winter vegetables.
This fall, Adams has taken the students on field trips to processing plants and farms, and is hoping to add some livestock management to the program down the road. He has gotten permission to try raising some meat chickens at the school with his students.
Students do some in-class learning, particularly about the business side of agriculture, but Adams aims to have them focused on hands-on learning for the majority of their time in the class. That’s the part that resonates with most of the students.
“Just going out to the greenhouse — I never really knew how that worked, so just for Mr. Adams to teach me, show me how to do that, it’s been a good experience,” said Elias Owens, a junior in the program.
Teaching about agriculture starts before high school in Mansfield. The elementary school even has a greenhouse. And quite a few of the students in the program already have some experience with agriculture.
“It’s amazing how agriculture is kind of ingrained into us, because that’s what our forefathers used to have to do,” Adams said.
Ja’ontay O’Bryant, a junior at Mansfield Senior High School, has worked for an urban farm in Mansfield for two years. Junior Cameron Barnett’s family has a farm near Ashland, where they raise a wide range of livestock. Zyion Brown, also a junior, has a grandma who has always been into gardening.
“I figure this class will be able to help me know what she’s talking about, and be able to help her in the yard,” Brown said.
Adams sees the program as something that could lead to a career path, but can be valuable for students whether they decide to pursue agriculture as a career or not.
“The urban farms are a big thing in Mansfield. It could be a career path,” Adams said. “I think the success is just measured in the kids learning something and ultimately becoming a productive citizen.”
The urban farms throughout Mansfield give Adams some examples to show students what is possible in agriculture.
“You don’t have to have 100 acres to do something that is lifelong and sustaining. It’s a good career,” he said.
That community has been helpful for the school as it gets the program up and running. The high tunnel was built before the start of the school year, but it wasn’t ready for planting right away.
Students have been clearing rocks and building in-ground beds as they get ready to plant some fall vegetables, with the help of one of the urban farms in Mansfield.
Kingwood Center Gardens, a historic site known partly for its gardens and greenhouse, is also right next to the high school. Adams has formed a partnership with the gardens so his students can help out and learn from the staff there, and so the staff can help them work on cleaning up and making use of the space around the high tunnel.
“I told these guys, you know, you’ll be my age and you’ll drive past here and think, ‘I was one of the pioneers of this’ … It’s something kind of to be proud of, that you’re the pioneers of this place,” Adams said.
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