Things have changed dramatically over the years in the eyes of agricultural education veterans like Mark Zidon at UW-Platteville and Fay Westberg at UW-River Falls.
Zidon, an agricultural-education professor and program coordinator, said when he arrived at UW-Platteville 28 years ago, the number of young men far outnumbered the women enrolling in ag education classes. Today, those numbers have been reversed.
“When I came here we had between 10 and 20 women who were majoring in ag education,” Zidon said. “Now it’s the other way around. Men are really a minority in ag education. Just off the cuff I would say we are at about 90 percent women.”
Rick Bockhop, a UW-Platteville ag education professor, said the incoming freshmen class of ag education majors has 22 members, and two of them are men.
At UW-River Falls, Westberg, an academic department associate, said based on 84 undergraduate and master’s degree students enrolled in ag education in January, the makeup of the student population was 79 percent female and 21 percent male.
She expects the numbers to be similar when classes resume in September.
“I’ve been here 30 years, and when I went to high school in the late 1970s, I remember when some of the first female ag teachers were just getting out into the field,” Westberg said. “It’s predominantly been moving in that direction ever since.”
Girls weren’t admitted into FFA programs until the 1960s, but in recent years, female enrollment in Wisconsin’s FFA chapters has caught up to the males.
Jeff Hicken, agriculture, food and natural resource education consultant for the Department of Public Instruction and Wisconsin FFA adviser, the number of females in ag teaching positions surpassed males about four years ago. Heading into 2017, preliminary numbers are at 161 female teachers and 147 males.
Of Wisconsin’s approximately 20,800 FFA members, the number of males and females involved in the organization is almost exactly an even split.
“That’s where we want to be,” Hicken said.
Bockhop said UW-Platteville has 76 students registered in the ag-education major heading into the 2017-2018 school year, although that number could change slightly with transfers and students who change their majors.
Student numbers have been stable the last three or four years, Bockhop said, although they dropped precipitously after Act 10 was passed in Wisconsin in 2011 that reduced benefits for teachers and state employees.
“The year after Act 10 went into effect, we lost 16 students,” he said. “It’s hard to argue that that was a poor decision.”
Enrollment at River Falls peaked at about 100 students earlier this century, but dropped to as low as 65 after Act 10 went into effect.
Ag-education enrollment at River Falls will be slightly higher than at Platteville this year, Westberg said, with 2017-2018 student numbers expected to be in the upper 80s to low 90s. She said the incoming freshmen class is “at the highest level it has been in quite a while.”
Just because students major in agricultural education doesn’t mean they will become teachers, Zidon said. Many of the students find higher-paying jobs in the agricultural industry.
“I wish I could say teaching pays as well as industry but it’s not true,” he said. “We’ve got some very good ag teachers out there but we are having trouble keeping them in ag.”
“We have ag-ed majors who do an internship in industry, and when they get just about done, the employer dangles a carrot in front of them,” Bockhop said. “The industry salaries are definitely higher.”
Zidon said with baby boomers reaching retirement age and the industry recruiting teachers away from the classroom, it will be difficult for Wisconsin’s two ag-education schools to graduate enough teachers to keep up with the demand.
“Trying to replace those retirees is going to be challenging,” he said.
Zidon said it’s not clear why fewer men and more women are training for careers as ag teachers, but he has his theories.
“We’ve got some really good women ag teachers who are great role models out there,” he said. “We’ve got some good men who are good role models, too, but I wonder if the perception isn’t switching to one that ag teaching is a female occupation. Some of the guys are saying, ‘I’m not going to teach ag, that’s for women.’ We do need to recruit men into these positions, too.”
Hicken said he doesn’t know why the ag-teaching profession has become dominated by women, but it is “something we definitely need to be looking at.”
There is still a shortage of certified teachers to fill the vacancies being created by teachers who leave the teaching profession to go into private industry, Hicken said. For the first time in 2017-2018, people who do not have an ag-education degree — or in some cases any college degree at all — will be teaching agriculture in Wisconsin classrooms.
Hicken estimated that about 10 ag-ed positions will be filled with one of the new vocational experienced-based licensees.
“They don’t have to have any teaching experience, and in fact, they don’t even have to have a degree if they can meet the point system,” Hicken said.
“When (the experience-based program) was first announced a lot of us were not happy about it. But when you sit back and look at reality, if we don’t have these 10 or whatever number it is who are willing to step in, will we keep those programs, or will they just fold? That’s the thing we have to be considerate of.”
Hicken said there are “mixed emotions” among people involved in agriculture education, because there is some concern that the experience-based program will prompt some people not to obtain ag-education training if they could get a teaching job without it.
Regardless of where they come from, Wisconsin has an ag-education teacher shortage, Hicken said.
“We are not getting enough graduates to fill the void we have every year,” he said. “That’s a for sure answer. We’re probably sitting at seven positions right now that I haven’t heard if there is a teacher in place.”