Already a thriving field within Yakima Valley’s school systems, agriculture education continues to grow, with new options for local students expected next year.
Yakima Valley College will add its first bachelor’s degree in its agriculture department for students looking to advance their careers in the industry.
West Valley School District will introduce a new agriculture and robotics pathway for students at its Innovation Center next school year. This adds to the Valley’s history of agriculture career pathways for students in districts like Wapato, Toppenish and Selah.
Agriculture is the top industry in Yakima County, providing over 30,000 jobs a year, according to the Washington State Employment Security Department. The industry continues to grow, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, with nearly 7,000 new jobs added between 2010 and 2020.
School officials said agriculture provides attractive employment options for students post-graduation.
New YVC degree
Yakima Valley College will introduce a Bachelor of Applied Sciences in agricultural sciences for the 2022-23 academic year, according to a YVC news release.
The degree will teach students leadership and management skills and incorporate topics such as pest management, soil health, finance and plant physiology, the release said.
Courses will include a mix of business and agricultural sciences, said YVC agriculture instructor Holly Ferguson. The program is for students who already have an associate degree or have completed 90 credits, according to agriculture instructor Stacey Gingras.
“We have designed the bachelor’s program so that our students in our (agriculture) AAS degrees, kind of seamlessly roll right into it after those two years of AAS, but we accept applicants from any other earned degree,” she said.
Currently, the college offers associate of applied sciences degrees in agribusiness, vineyard technology, winery technology and production and pest management. But this is the agriculture department’s first bachelor’s degree.
YVC offers Bachelor of Applied Sciences degrees in a few fields, including business management, dental hygiene, information technology and teacher education.
Gingras said the college has been developing this degree for years, collecting feedback from community stakeholders. As a part of the college’s workforce education division, the department had to demonstrate a clear need for workers with these skills and local interest in this pathway.
The degree’s core curriculum included feedback from agriculture industry leaders. Some of these professionals expressed concern about an aging workforce and the need for a younger generation of managers, Gingras said.
Trained workers are in such high demand in agriculture, that sometimes YVC students are hired by employers before they finish their degree programs, Gingras said.
Ferguson said that while students with this degree will be employable anywhere, she hopes they will stay in the area.
“We’re trying to boost the economy, and to improve the quality of life for our Yakima Valley residents by offering this program so they can go out and get good paying jobs to support their families,” she said. “And in turn, they’re going to be an integral part of our community, which is so, so much based in agriculture.”
Ferguson anticipated the program’s first cohort will have about 25 students. People interested in the program can apply online through May 31, 2022.
West Valley adds pathway
West Valley School District will offer a new agriculture and robotics pathway at its Innovation Center next school year, district officials said.
The Innovation Center is the district’s career and technical education campus that opened this school year. It serves about 92 students in grades seven through nine, but will open to older grades next year, said Russ Tuman, the director of student experience for the school.
The agriculture and robotics pathway will prepare students for work in the modern agriculture industry, he said. In speaking with local growers, school officials heard about the increasing automation going on in the industry, thus the need for a pathway that combined both fields.
“We want to have students that can understand the relationship between those two things and can build on that,” Tuman said.
The school is working with local companies, including Byron Automation, to procure robotic equipment for students, he said.
The first cohort will include students in grade seven through nine, up to 32 students total, Tuman said. Applications opened last week and are due by April 1, 2022.
Tuman said he’s heard from current Innovation Center students interested in switching to the new pathway.
The school currently offers programs in STEM, computer science and health sciences.
Agriculture education opportunities are already embedded in many schools around the Yakima Valley, reflecting the industry’s historical importance.
Most Yakima Valley high schools have FFA clubs that focus on agriculture education, or classes or career pathways for students interested in the industry.
Wapato High School’s agriculture program has been around for decades and is popular with students, according to Everett Garza, the school’s assistant principal and CTE director.
In the school of 870 students, there are 401 filled seats in agriculture classes, though that may represent some students taking more than one class in the subject, Garza said. The FFA club is the school’s largest, with 97 students involved.
The school offers eight agriculture subjects where students study a variety of topics, from greenhouses and horticulture to hydroponics and vertical farming to soil and rock formations, he said. Students can even train in welding and forklift operation. Next year, the school will add courses in animal sciences.
Agriculture mechanics teacher Rob Ford said the pandemic strengthened the program in some ways because students were so eager to return to hands-on learning.
“The classes are full,” he said. “These kids are just biting at the bit to get out in the shops as much as possible and work with everybody.”
The roots of the agriculture education program run deep throughout the local area, Ford said. Partnerships with local growers and industry professionals help teachers stay in touch with the skills employers are looking for. That translates directly to jobs for students, such as one student who was offered a job after an employer saw his skills at a recent welding competition.
“I think it's our community that makes us so strong, quite honestly,” Ford said. “The Wapato community has been so helpful in reaching out and they're always there for us whenever we need something.”
Editor's note: This article was updated to correct the spelling of Stacey Gingras's last name.