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A growing program

Windham Regional Career Center builds an agricultural curriculum

BRATTLEBORO—Over the past couple of years, Brattleboro has cemented its reputation as a food and agriculture hub.

The Grafton Village Cheese Co., and the Commonwealth Dairy yogurt plant that will be opening soon, are signs of the town’s growing niche in food production.

Last summer, the Organic Trade Association decided to locate its offices here, a reflection of the region’s support of organic agriculture.

The Strolling of the Heifers has gained national fame for its annual bovine parade down Main Street, but its educational outreach programs and summer farm internships are training the next generation of farmers.

Add to this list the Windham Regional Career Center (WRCC), which is in the process of modifying and expanding its agriculture program to create a complete curriculum for students interested in the field.

WRCC Director David Coughlin said the career center plans to take over the Strolling of the Heifers summer intern program “as an extension of our programs,” and that the center is developing an agriculture and sustainable food systems “pathway” — or area of academic concentration — for students.

“There’s a lot of interest in agriculture, and a lot of inquiries into what we could offer,” he said. “We’re trying to put together a program that fits the needs of Windham County and be a place to go get the background and skills needed to be successful.”

Currently, only one vocational/technical school in Vermont, the Patricia A. Hannaford Center in Middlebury, offers an agricultural program.

Unlike traditional agricultural curriculums, where a student shows up in the morning and works on one program all day, Coughlin said the career center is developing curricula with multiple tracks for students.

“This means agricultural students are taking business courses, and culinary arts students are taking agricultural courses, and everybody is learning the other side of the equation,” said Coughlin. “Successful farmers in our area have developed business plans that get them away from relying on a single product and finding a niche where they can survive. That’s what we hope to provide to our students.”

The agriculture and sustainable food systems pathway includes the current forestry and agricultural land management courses that the WRCC offers.

“Forest management is still a big part of farming in Windham County,” Coughlin said.

A course in hydroponic and greenhouse operations is being added, and Coughlin said there is a possibility that an animal science course might be added soon. But he stressed that much of what the career center can do will depend on what sort of partnerships the WRCC can form with the community.

“With budgets going down, we have to be creative and entrpreneurial in how we fund our courses,” said Coughlin. “The message I have been putting out is that all the various agricultural interests in the area need to get together and come up with a common strategy. As students get ready to go, we want to get them out on area farms and actively engage in on-site learning. We need more community partners to achieve that.”

The career center is working with the University of Vermont Extension and the Vermont Agricultural Business Education Center (VABEC) to expand its offerings. Taking over the Stroll’s summer intern program is another way that Coughlin said that WRCC is working toward finding work experience for its students.

Learning beyond boundaries

The entrepreneurial part of the job equation is important, said Coughlin, because more and more graduates are starting their own businesses.

“We now have a ‘start your own business’ course, and we recommend it to every one of our students,” he said. “Learning the basic skills of how to run a business is not just important for a entrepreneur. Tuning into what makes a business run well also makes our students better employees.”

The cross-pollination effect goes beyond the career center. More students at Brattleboro Union High School are taking WRCC courses, Coughlin said, and are finding that the WRCC courses offer an extra boost to those who are college-bound.

“No matter what job you do, you need to have good math and English skills,” he said. “Take math. We put it on the ground and students see how it gets used in the real world. It’s not taught as an abstract subject, but something that is real. Seeing that makes the learning real.”

In the eight years that Coughlin has been associated with the career center, he said that enrollment has doubled. About 500 students take WRCC courses, including high school students from Bellows Falls, Leland & Gray, Twin Valley, Hinsdale, N.H., and The Austine School.

“Students are learning that there needs to be a purpose beyond just going to college. They have to have a focus, and that’s one of the most important things we do here. More parents are seeing the value of technical education, and how it fits into post-secondary education. Technical courses can get students a lot closer to their goals.”

Six months after graduation, Coughlin said about 70-75 percent of WRCC students are in post-secondary education or have jobs. Three years after graduation, 95 percent are actively involved in something — college, the military, or the workforce.

“We like to say our diploma comes with a lifetime warranty,” said Coughlin. “We’ll always be here as a resource for our graduates, and we have a lot of them come back looking for help and advice. Generally, the students that pick out a good technical course are the most successful, but I want to see the same level of success for our agricultural students. I’m looking forward to the day we can see our kids at the farmers’ markets selling their products.”

While more and more young people interested in agriculture, Coughlin is cautious about the economics of farming. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Census of Agriculture, Windham County has three times the national average of agricultural operations. At the same time, the average wage for agricultural workers in the county is very low.

“Most of the farms in the county would be classified as part-time “hobby farms,” said Coughlin, “and it’s hard to make an income just off farming. So someone taking agricultural courses would need to learn what students in the other study areas are learning — how to think creatively, develop problem solving skills and how to be agile and able to change as job requirements change. We’re not training people for entry-level jobs. We’re training them to be good and successful farmers.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #86 (Wednesday, February 2, 2011).

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