“Agriculture is something that is constantly changing,” according to Heritage High School agriculture teacher Mike Shirey.
“It’s not like we can do the same things we did 24 years ago. We can build upon those things, but it is definitely a changing world.”
Shirey said today’s Heritage agriculture program, too, is more complex than the program he joined 24 years ago. Students are preparing not just for the small percentage of farming jobs, but also for the wider variety of food industry jobs, he said.
“Farming is about 2 percent of our society,” he said, “and more like 20 to 25 percent of our society is going to be involved in some sort of agriculture, whether it’s food processing or working as an engineer to John Deere, developing precision planting using GPS, things of that nature. So it’s a lot more than just cows, plows and sows.”
“We have some challenges coming up,” Shirey said. “We have to double output by 2050. And so we are trying to do our part to help prepare the kids to produce the food and fiber that we need.”
That evolution will require more emphasis on biotechnology, engineering crop varieties that will produce during drought or during wet years. Better water management and irrigation will be crucial, Shirey said. “I think that’s a big part of the discussion, especially after last summer’s drought.”
“So we have a variety and diversity of classes,” he said. Courses include landscaping, agriculture woodworking, animal science, horticulture, farm business management, welding, small engines, electricity and plumbing.
Shirey is the senior member of the ag team. Ag teacher Chris Hall is in his 17th year as a Heritage teacher. Ag teacher Ashtin Balzer is in her first year at Woodlan High School. All three earned their degrees at Purdue University.
Shirey said agriculture education took a sharp turn in the late 1980s, about the time he was starting his career, and now offers more diverse courses. “So if a kid is interested in animal science, we usually start them out with our fundamentals, which is kind of a flavor of everything,” he said. The student might then take Animal Science I and then Advanced Animal Science.
He said about 350 Heritage students participate in the agriculture program each year.
He said Future Farmers of America complements the agriculture program. “The FFA is a co-curriculum because it aligns itself with what we do in the classroom,” he said. About 50 agriculture students are enrolled in FFA. Some students also participate in the National Junior Horticulture Association, which he described as an FFA affiliate.
Ag education was a logical career choice for Shirey, who grew up on a farm south of Muncie. “I came from a family of educators,” he said. “My mom was an elementary teacher. My aunts and uncles were teachers. A grandfather was a school board president. A grandmother was a school secretary.” Other family members held agriculture degrees, and one uncle was a veterinarian.
“I graduated from high school and went to Purdue to major in agriculture,” he said. “And I was looking for something that had some diversity, because we raised a lot of livestock at home, we had some show cattle and so forth.”
“And in addition, I wanted something to help me develop my people skills,” he said. As late as his junior year at Purdue, though, Shirey was not certain about his career choice. “I had a wonderful student teaching experience and worked under a great supervising teacher,” he said. “I decided that I wanted to pursue ag education, and it’s been a lot of fun learning along with the kids, teaching the kids.”
The FFA program took the spotlight in late February. Since 1947, National FFA Week has encompassed Feb. 22, Washington’s birthday.
“The community has just been very supportive of the kids and of me and the program as a whole,” Shirey said.
“And that’s made it a lot of fun through the 24 years.”