A Catskill Catalog: Jan. 27, 2010

High school seniors around the Catskills, as elsewhere, are completing essays, gathering letters of recommendation, and sending off their college applications. Support of their efforts is an annual end-of-first-semester effort for teachers and guidance counselors. Students are lucky they only have to go through it once – barring transfer or grad school.
Perhaps, we should not be surprised to learn that agriculture is the new “hot major” attracting many ambitious young people today. After all, environmental concerns have made sustainable agriculture, local produce, and slow food attractive alternatives to many of the agricultural practices of the 20th Century.
Kids today form an idealistic, environmentally energized generation. Change in the way we produce and distribute food seems central to sustainable environmental practice. Can’t change it, if you don’t study it.
Besides, this is the generation that has made “WWOOF-ing” a widespread youth lifestyle option. (Well, they and the recession.) Never heard of WWOOF? Talk to someone in their early 20s. It’s World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, an Internet-based network of opportunity for people to work on organic farms anywhere in the world. “In return for volunteer help, WWOOF hosts offer food, accommodation and opportunities to learn about organic lifestyles.” (www.wwoof.org)
Enrollment in agriculture programs nationwide increased nearly 22 percent between 2005 and 2008, up from about 58,000 majors to 71,000. These new Aggies are not farm kids. Many are students seeking to parlay their love of animals into an environmentally purposeful course of study. “Marine science was more about the ocean than the animals,” reported one suburban girl now researching chickens’ role in disease transmission as an Ag major.
Agriculture was an important subject in Catskill Mountain schools’ high school curriculum when local districts were centralized in the 1930s. This was an agricultural region, its economy fundamentally dependent on farming. Most students lived on a farm. Agriculture was an important academic subject, and the Future Farmers of America was an active and vibrant student activity.
Margaretville Central dropped its Ag program when longtime teacher Charlie Holdridge retired, shortly before I arrived to teach here in 1971. Charlie knew his business. He operated his own farm in New Kingston, tending a milking herd by morning and evening, tending a gaggle of mostly rambunctious boys in the back-of-the-building Agriculture classroom by day.
In Andes, the Ag program had its own building. Across the street from the school, today’s universal Pre-Kindergarten children share their own school building with the kindergartners and a wellness center. Years ago, that was the Ag Building, later Joe Grieco’s Industrial Arts Shop.
Agriculture schools were among the building blocks of the State University. In the first decade of the 1900s, New York established Agricultural and Technical colleges, strategically located around the state to serve farmers and improve agricultural practices regionally. Ag and Techs were founded in Canton in the north country, Alfred in the southern tier, Farmingdale on Long Island, Cobleskill in the Schoharie farmlands, Morrisville in the Mohawk Valley, and Delhi in the Delaware Valley and the Catskills.
In 1948, they all became units of SUNY.
Today, SUNY Delhi offers its 3,100 students over 50 majors, including Bachelors’ degrees in Architectural Design and Building, Nursing, Golf Course Management, Hospitality Management, Veterinary Technology Management, and Information Technology Management. To think, it all started as an Ag school.
Management, management, everything’s management! There’s reason for that. Take information technology. The information and the technology exist. If we can only manage that information technology better, more efficiently, then we’ll get more productivity. That’s the same notion that was applied to agriculture in the early 1900s. New York State Ag schools were designed to teach progressive farming methods: to educate farmers to manage their land, herds, and crops more effectively and efficiently.
My friend, the late Hugh Robertson was one of the first graduates of the Delhi Ag program. Huey used his education in the operation of his New Kingston farm, which he ran until his retirement back in the 1980s. I sometimes wear a fedora hat that Huey purchased through J.C. Penney probably 60 or 70 years ago. It was the legacy left me, a gift of Hugh’s nephew.
During World War II, students at Margaretville Central raised a victory garden in the open area between the wings of the school. School-based gardens were common during the war years. Today, the internet is full of Web sites urging schools and classrooms to incorporate into the curriculum agriculture and school-based food production.
Several colleges now set aside land for student-run community gardens, including Bard College, our neighbor across the river. Maybe we’re at the beginning of something. Maybe local agriculture and its study are set for a comeback.