Mt. Blue school system readies for agriculture program

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FARMINGTON – Franklin County has deep roots in agriculture and continues to be a farming center, with a growing number of small farms being managed by younger farmers, according to the 2007 U.S. Census of Agriculture.

Area farmers and farming advocates now say more needs to be done to show young people that there are viable careers in agribusiness and animal science.

One suggestion is to provide a high school level program at Foster Technology Center that would offer students a chance to explore agricultural science as a profession. In May, a group of farmers and farming advocates say they will show their support for the proposal when it comes before the Mt. Blue Regional School District Board of Directors.

The plan is for a pilot program to be offered that would have no cost to the district and would be based on internships at local farms, Foster Tech director Glenn Kapiloff told the Franklin County Agriculture Task Force on Tuesday.

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With programs and positions being reduced or eliminated under $1.6 million in budget cuts due to lost state revenues for 2010-2010, there is no money for new programming, he said. The hope is that in two years, federal grants and state money may again be available for an expanded curriculum.

If approved by the school board, a scaled-down program could start in September with six juniors and seniors spending six or seven weeks at participating farms, he said.

“This would start as a mentoring program between students and area farmers. And there are farmers who have said they would be interested in participating,” said Pam Harnden, chairwoman of the Franklin County Farm Bureau who has been taking the lead on the community piece of the project.

She said a New Vineyard mechanic who repairs farm machinery and an Industry beef farmer who specializes in cutting-edge, black Angus genetics have already said they would take on students.

Other internships would focus on greenhouse production, yogurt and cheese making, maple syrup production, and farm management, she said.

The agriculture curriculum would be offered to students alongside the 18 other career and technical programs and would meet all the career preparation standards of the Maine Learning Results.

The school already offers students the opportunity to enroll in off-site pre-apprenticeships and internships and closely monitors their performance, Kapiloff said.

“Career and technical education immerses kids in these programs and requires 350 hours of instruction time, usually four hours every other day, and they take their academic classes at their sending schools,” Kapiloff said.

He noted the new $64 million Mt. Blue High School/Foster Tech “learning campus” renovation and expansion set to be completed in 2013 will include a full greenhouse to use a learning lab.

For the past year, the agricultural task force has been discussing farm-related issues and coming up with ideas that would support producers, involve the community and encourage innovations. One of its goals has been to promote agricultural education.

“We have resources here that we could be taking advantage of. We have a lot of farms that would be perfect, hands-on laboratories but there has to be a commitment from the school, the superintendents, the community and the state,” said organic dairy farmer L. Herbert “Bussie” York who owns Sandy River Farms in Farmington and has been pushing for agriculture education.

Also at the task force meeting was Doug Robertson, an agriculture and natural resources specialist with the Maine Department of Education’s Career and Technical Education Team. If the program at Foster Tech moves forward, he would be available as an adviser.

Robinson spoke about the value of an agricultural and natural resource program, and about the successful national leadership in agriculture program offered through FAA, or Future Farmers of America, that is offered in dozens of Maine public schools. He urged that a chapter be established at Foster Technology Center.

“This group seems very committed,” Robinson said after the meeting. “There are a lot of things that still need to be worked out but it sounds very favorable as far as the ideas, the resources, and connecting the program to different academics like science and math.”

According to a 2008 report, “The Changing Face of Agriculture in Franklin County,” the market value of farm production in Franklin County went from $5.9 million in 2002 to $8.4 million in 2007, a 41 percent increase. During the same period, the average market value per farm increased by 15 percent and the number of farms increased by 22 percent , according to the report published cooperatively by Maine Farmland Trust, Western Mountains Alliance and Threshold to Maine RC&D.

There was also a 200 percent increase in Franklin County farmers under 25 years of age, and a 25 percent increase in the 25- to 34-year-old bracket at a time when the average age of farmers here increased from 53 in 2002 to 55 in 2007, according to the U.S. Census of Agriculture.

Students taking classes at Foster Technology Center come from Mt. Blue High School in Farmington; Jay High School; Rangeley Lakes Regional High School; Livermore Falls High School and Mt. Abram High School in Salem Township.

Other projects task force members are involved in include wheat trials this summer through the University of Maine Cooperative Extension’s Franklin County office; a cooperative composting program; an organic milk processing operation at Sandy River Farms that would be available to area dairy producers; and renovating the Farmington Grange to serve as a regional food distribution center.

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