Head to a major agricultural show and chances are you’ll find high school students showing livestock.
But you won’t find any from Barker College in Sydney, as the North Shore school ditched the traditional subject to take agricultural education in a new direction.
“We’ve made a conscious effort to improve the academic reputation of the subject,” said Scott Graham, who heads up the school’s agriculture department.
“We want to have it seen as on par with sciences, like biology and chemistry and physics, and business studies.
“I think for schools that show animals, often the number one thing that people think about agriculture is that it’s just showing animals, and that’s really not what we’re about.”
Ag education comeback
Barker’s agricultural program has staged a remarkable recovery, after it was almost shut down in 2008, with only about 50 students enrolled.
These days, enrolments are topping 400 across year 9 to 12.
And unlike in many schools, the majority will stay with the subject until they graduate.
“Agriculture in metropolitan high schools really has been overlooked,” Mr Graham said.
“Two-thirds of Australia’s population live in only five cities and so if we’re really going to change the number of people going into agriculture, it’s going to require something different to happen in metropolitan areas.”
From classes that include coffee making to exploring exotic fruits, at Barker the approach is plate to paddock — rather than paddock to plate — making the lessons more relevant to students who largely have no connection to the land.
And while what happens on farms is a significant part of the syllabus, Mr Graham focuses on the 60 to 70 per cent of agricultural jobs that happen off-farm.
“We look at it from a perspective of the students probably not owning and running a farm, but they’ll be developing and creating things that will assist farmers or they might be along the supply chain,” he said.
Revamping education programs
Schools like Barker are increasingly on the mind of Anthony Lee, the chief executive of Australian Country Choice, one of the world’s largest family-owned cattle and beef suppliers.
Mr Lee is on a mission to overhaul agricultural education, after hearing his own children come home from school with mostly negative messages about the industry.
“I heard things like … ‘You’re part of the problem’, or, ‘The beef industry is really bad and we shouldn’t be eating meat’,” Mr Lee said.
“Why would a teacher want to teach it, why would a kid want to come into the industry, if they’re hearing bad things?”
His call for action has led to a working group bringing together industries, research and development corporations and educators, which is now developing a national strategy to address the issue.
“It’s not about Victoria or New South [Wales], it’s not about cotton or beef. It’s about agriculture in Australia,” Mr Lee said.
“We need a coordinated plan and … a coordinated effort about how we get to all schools right around Australia.”
The first phase, which has just started, is to find the best agricultural education programs.
“This is the bit where we understand all the failings, all the good things, what’s working well domestically and internationally … really spend time to understand what great looks like,” Mr Lee said.
‘Gold standard’ education
In South Australia’s Riverland, there’s a high school with an agriculture program that has been described as the “gold standard” by the state’s lead agriculture teacher.
Loxton High takes a very business-like approach, with up to a dozen mini enterprises on the school farm and a high-tech greenhouse in the works.
“It’s making all those decisions with the kids that a farmer would be making on their farm,” said department head Justine Fogden, who has been teaching agriculture for almost three decades.
“If it’s an enterprise here at school, it has to be profitable.”
She does see value in showing livestock, but says it’s only a small part of learning about an industry that reaches well beyond the farm gate.
“It’s still hard to get people to fully understand agriculture and the job opportunities,” she said.
“They might be a hands-on kid that enjoys machinery and working with livestock, but it can also be someone who’s into digital technologies and app development that can have an absolutely massive future in agriculture.”
Industry involvement is one of the keys to modernising agricultural education, especially with a major shortage of experienced teachers.
Ms Fogden said while industry excursions dropped off during the pandemic, more online resources were now available.
But the chair of the working group developing the national strategy, Adele Laughton, said the current syllabus left a lot of room for improvement.
“I do think it’s a bit stale, if you want my honest opinion,” said Ms Laughton, who until recently was also the chief executive of the Future Farmers Network.
“I think we could be making it a lot more dynamic for future-focused jobs.”
Podcast for pursuing agriculture
Someone who has taken the lack of resources into her own hands is newcomer Louise Hobbs, who started a podcast to help students prepare for assessments.
Miss Hobbs teaches at Goroke College, a small rural school in Victoria with 80 students.
“I literally started [the podcast] for five students and it ended up reaching thousands,” she said.
Despite coming from the land, she had no interest in pursuing agriculture towards the end of her schooling.
“I said, ‘Oh no why would I want to do that?’, because I didn’t see it as something that would be useful to me,” she said.
But the university science graduate, who went on to pursue teaching, changed her mind after being allocated agricultural studies in her first school placement.
She’s now trying to make a career in agriculture something to aspire to instead of avoid.
“Ag has so much science in it,” she said.
“It’s not just about being a farmer, it’s about being an animal nutritionist, being an agronomist, being a climate scientist.
“You don’t have to come from a family farm to enter ag, you can be from the city and you can have an awesome career in agriculture as well.”
Watch this story on ABC TV’s Landline at 12:30pm on Sunday, or on iview.