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A Times Editorial

Agricultural programs need debate, direction


© St. Petersburg Times
published October 6, 2002

Once upon a time, they were ubiquitous in Citrus.

Cattle ranchers and farmers worked the rolling hills where transplanted families now grow. Livestock outnumbered humans; fence laws, designed to keep cattle from roaming onto roads, were novel notions.

Times have changed, of course, and Citrus County's rural past is giving way to an urban future. Agriculture has not disappeared entirely, however, and families with deep roots in the county are struggling to keep the heritage alive.

The effort extends to the county school system, where the School Board faces questions about the future of the district's agricultural programs. On Tuesday, the board expects to hear from local ranchers and farmers who want to keep agricultural education from going the way of the horse and buggy.

The discussion has been driven by changes to the Citrus High School campus and other district properties in downtown Inverness. As the district has grown, needs such as a larger cafeteria for the high school and a site for the Renaissance Center have gobbled up much of the land that had been used by agricultural training.

With the move to convert the old gymnasium at Citrus High from agricultural classrooms to a community center gaining steam, some worry that the program is being squeezed out.

Board members, who must balance these concerns with the realities of a growing district, are considering several ideas. One suggestion that has emerged is a centralized agricultural program, drawing interested students from around the county possibly to a site near Lecanto, where the district owns open land.

The idea would be to create a magnet program similar to the district's successful academies, such as those that teach marine science at the Salt River near Crystal River, health at Crystal River High, business at Citrus High and computers and art at Lecanto High.

Several ranchers have complained about such a consolidation, raising issues that have been brought out, and resolved, when other academies were proposed. They worry about how students would get to the new site and whether teens, already loyal to their high school, would willingly go to another school.

The experience of the Academy of Environmental Science offers some insight. When it opened in 1999, enrollment was low, but the numbers have steadily grown as students have warmed to the innovative program. Transportation problems have been solved by having buses take students to and from their home schools, with schedules adjusted to accommodate students' needs.

The academies' success is demonstrating that students will make extra efforts to attend a program that offers something of special value to them. There is no reason to think the same would not be true for an agriculture academy.

Just as Citrus has changed, so, too, has the science of agriculture. Students today can learn about developments in everything from genetically engineered crops and drought-resistant landscaping to golf course management and lawn maintenance.

As the population grows and the amount of farmland shrinks, there will be a greater need for people schooled in current agricultural sciences. To quote the slogan of a fast-food chain: You gotta eat.

And as any farmer or rancher will tell you, things need room to grow. What's true for corn and cattle is true for educational programs, too.

The county's agricultural advocates must work with the School Board to create a program with the best chance of success for the future. They must decide if their prospects are better in the open fields of central Citrus or in a rapidly developing downtown Inverness.

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