It’s close to 100 degrees outside when Stephen Brown, 42, of Killeen, takes a break from his work in a large garden. He wipes the sweat from his forehead and smiles as he looks at rows of what will eventually sprout corn, black-eyed peas and other crops.
“This is my classroom,” he said.
Brown is one of a small but dedicated group of students enrolled in Central Texas College’s agriculture program. It began in 1965 and reflects the important role that agriculture has played in the history of Central Texas.
“The program has been around since the college’s inception,” said Zhan Aljoe, professor of CTC’s Agriculture Department. “Like a lot of other places in Texas, this area had a lot of farms and ranches, so (agriculture) was part of life.”
CTC has 160 acres of land at its Killeen campus dedicated to its agriculture program, which is home to a livestock center, a 2,600-square-foot greenhouse, a stable with six horses and 15 head of cattle.
Last year, the program graduated more than 130 students, and while the number enrolled may be small compared to other programs, Aljoe said it attracts a motivated and diverse group of students.
“We see people from age 16 to 60 want to come in and take courses,” he said. “They all have different interests, and want to explore what agriculture has to offer.”
The college offers a two-year associate in science degree, a two-year agricultural industries certificate and three one-year certificates specializing in equine, horticulture and agriculture production.
“It’s a very diverse field, and students get a little bit of everything,” Aljoe said. “As they complete the program, they find out what areas interest them the most, and can specialize in those if they choose to transfer and continue their education.”
That curriculum spans a number of areas, with students studying everything from animal science and horticulture to mechanical repair and even marketing.
“It is a really wide spectrum, because agriculture encompasses so many different areas,” Aljoe said.
Another agriculture student, David McMillen of Copperas Cove, agreed.
“No matter where you want to focus, you need to be able to do a little bit of everything,” said McMillen, a former Army mechanic. “I’m interested in equine studies, but on any given day you might need to be a mechanic, welder, businessman or veterinarian.”
As agriculture continues to evolve into the 21st century, the areas of study it encompasses continue to grow.
Professor Thomas Grady earned his doctorate in agriculture education in 1984, and taught the subject in colleges in Wisconsin and Texas through the mid-1990s. Grady said the agriculture education students receive today is more diversified and reliant on technology than in previous years.
“There seemed to be a shift away from a production agriculture, and more of a focus on areas like natural resources, technology and bioscience,” said Grady, who now works as a teacher and adjunct instructor for Texas A&M University-Central Texas’ school of education. “You can’t be a hayseed anymore, you are really going to need to get into the science and technology aspect of things.”
Grady said the growing emphasis on technology and science is likely the result of the growing presence of large-scale, industrial agribusiness over small family farms.
“You are seeing less and less of these small farms and ranches, and more of the big companies coming in on the production and processing end of things,” Grady said. “That’s where the jobs are going to be.”
Aljoe echoed similar sentiments, and said those big companies are looking for employees with a well-rounded education.
“That’s why you are seeing everything from veterinary courses, to economics and research courses all under the umbrella of agriculture,” he said. “It’s a very competitive job market, and they want the best.”
Even as the demands of big business and technology continue to change the landscape of agriculture education in Texas and beyond, professors like Aljoe and students like Brown and McMillen still see value in getting outside and getting their hands dirty.
“This is the kind of stuff that you need to get out there and apply and do yourself to understand,” said Brown, who hopes to grow and sell fresh fruits and vegetables to Killeen residents. “What you learn in a classroom is important, but you need to take it outside and put it into practice.”