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A group of 85 instructors from high schools and colleges as far north as San Jose and south as northern Los Angeles gathered in Santa Maria on Monday to tour businesses and Hancock College, and discuss the development of agricultural education courses across the state.

Speaking with industry professionals and colleagues, the roughly seven dozen teachers, advisers and professors wanted to find out whether students need to know how to test water for coliform bacteria or safely weld and repair large pieces of farm equipment — like tractors or combines. Their goal: adapt and update local agricultural education curricula to create a seamless transition from high school courses, to two- or four-year degree or certificate programs, and then to the professional workforce.

"This tour gives agriculture teachers an opportunity to witness what the industry would like students [to know] in order fill their needs," said Greg Beard, who has overseen the South Coast Regional Agricultural Education Consortium and local FFA programs for more than two decades. "We're giving them a firsthand experience of what it is their graduates can pursue [as a career.]"

Monday's visits to the Santa Maria offices of Melfred Borzall, a directional drilling tool manufacturer, and 123 acres of indoor and outdoor production area at Greenheart Farms in Arroyo Grande were followed by a tour of Hancock College's vineyard, farm and winery.

"We're really trying to create agriculture pathways between high schools and community colleges," explained Holly Nolan Chavez, who directs agriculture programs at Hancock College. Earlier this year, the college revived their dormant agricultural science degree program — with plans to expand in 2019 and beyond.

Industry and inter-campus partnerships are key to the program's success, Hancock Agriculture Coordinator Erin Krier told the group, as are ample research and field experience for aspiring agriculturalists.

"I only spend about half of my time in my lectures and the other half out here," she said, pointing to a group of plots with sprouting Brussels sprouts, cabbage and kale. Students in agribusiness classes use the land to grow and sell their product, she explained, while plant science students run tests in the field.

Prior to joining the state in an advisory capacity, Beard taught agriculture courses for a decade at Fullerton High School and previously served as president for the California Agricultural Teachers’ Association. He's seen a notable shift in high school and college programs over the past decade given the state's renewed emphasis on career technical education (CTE) programs.

"Many of our students acquire skills to enter into the agriculture industry," he said. "The teachers are now incorporating what's happening in the industry into their classrooms."

Many of the courses have also been updated to align with the University of California's entrance requirements for high school students. 

"We're no longer cows and plows," he joked. "Our curriculum has changed to meet the needs of the students, universities and the industry."

Mathew Burciaga covers education in Santa Maria and the surrounding area for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @math_burciaga

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