Into the classroom at Tuscola High School

Ag education options excite students
By Richard Ploch | Jan 31, 2014
Photo by: Richard Ploch Pictured above are Joshua Arrington, Halston Medford, Jackson Lowdermilk, Zachary Ross, Ashton Glance, Lee Matthis, Shane Mull, Justin Ross, Melissa Ruff working on a project. On a recent day, the students hooked up a single pole switch to a light bulb during a unit on electrical wiring.

The classes in the agriculture department of Tuscola High School have had a life-changing impact on many of its students, and that is a good thing for society since all must eat.


Tuscola senior Mimi MacDonald is one of the students who found her future direction thanks to the agriculture educators at the school.


“I wouldn't be into anything I’m doing now without Mr. (John) Best and Mrs. (Beth) Ross," said MacDonald. "I wasn't in any agriculture classes in ninth grade, but then I took horticulture the next year and it was the best thing that ever happened to me. I didn't know what I was getting into and then realized it’s about flowers and plants, and I love being outside."


It was Ross who sparked McDonald's interest in the Future Farmers of America (FFA) organization.

"The first thing I did was poultry judging," said MacDonald. "Now, I’m FFA president and plan to major in sustainable agriculture at Warren Wilson College in Swannanoa in the fall. It’s been fun.”

For John Best, who grew up on a small farm in the Upper Crabtree community and has taught at Tuscola for 34 years, the critical need for agriculture education is clear.

“In a world of more than 7 billion people and available land shrinking because of the development that civilizations require, agriculture will become even more relevant as time goes on,” said Best. “The skills that students must acquire will be more intensive in science and technology and the pressures to increase production with limited resources will increase over time.”

Beth Ross, a Tuscola graduate and now in her eighth year on the faculty, teaches the horticulture and landscaping classes and agrees with her colleague.

“Agriculture is just as important today as it was 1,000 years ago,” said Ross. “It is perhaps more important today than ever. Every person on this planet is tied to agriculture by our basic human need for food. Exposing young people to agriculture during high school helps to ensure that we have bright, young minds who want to continue the all-important task of caring for a growing population.”

In addition to learning the required state curriculum in the classroom, Tuscola students enjoy time in the agriculture lab and greenhouse.

“All of my students get hands-on experience in the greenhouse and apply the knowledge learned in the classroom to actually growing plants,” said Ross. “I hope that our students gain a love and appreciation for plants that they can apply in their own lives. I’ve had several students who have pursued careers directly related to agriculture. Not all students will be as influenced by their classes as I was, but I do hope that they all carry their horticultural knowledge with them.”

Bill Yarborough, a Haywood Country resident and special assistant to N. C. Commissioner of Agriculture Steve Troxler, has seen the work of Best and Ross first-hand. He calls the FFA program one of the best programs for young people in America.

“It introduces them to agriculture in a time when less than 2 percent of the population actually farms,” said Yarborough. “Another important product of FFA is the training for these students in civics and understanding how to run a meeting. ‘Roberts Rules of Order’ is taught and utilized on a regular basis. I can usually tell an FFA former member in a board meeting.”

FFA also provides students an opportunity to travel and meet other students from across the state and nation. Thirty-five attended the National FFA Convention in Louisville, Kentucky, in October along with trips to regional and state leadership workshops.

Tuscola junior Sara Best is enthusiastic when she talks about the programs at the school.

“Most students don’t realize the importance of food production in their future,” said Sara. “People think that if you take ag classes, you have to go into farming, but we learn so much more than that, including parliamentary procedure and how to run a meeting.”

In Best’s agriculture mechanics class, the students get hands-on experience in electricity, mechanics and woodworking, along with some welding and plumbing in the well-equipped ag lab. On a recent day, the students hooked up a single pole switch to a light bulb during a unit on electrical wiring.

“You can ask Mr. Best anything and he can tell you how to do it all,” said tenth-grader Hunter James. “This class is the best.”

After Best graduated in the final class at Crabtree Iron Duff High School, he majored in agriculture at Berea College and then served a two-year duty in the Army during the Vietnam War that included an assignment on the Caisson Platoon at Arlington Cemetery taking part in daily funerals honoring military personnel. After his discharge, he earned a Master of Science degree in plant and soil science at the University of Tennessee before coming to Tuscola in 1975.

Aleasa Glance is currently the director of Haywood County School career-technical education. She taught with Best at Tuscola and was followed on the faculty by Ross.

“The agriculture program offers many different types of hands-on experience,” said Glance. “You do not have to live on a farm to benefit from these programs. My daughter is taking classes with both John and Beth this year and comes home almost daily talking about what she has learned. My middle child now says she can't wait to get to Tuscola so that she can take their classes as well. Both are great and caring teachers and complement each other in this horticulture/agriculture program, a program I truly love.”

Many in the public are unaware of how many hours are spent by teachers beyond the school day. Tuscola’s ag teachers put in an average of six or more hours each week planning their classes, obtaining supplies, working in the greenhouse and lab, and an additional eight to 10 hours weekly working with FFA students on competitions, leadership workshops, service projects and traveling to out-of-town events, even in the summer.

“We know it strengthens our program and provides benefits for our students beyond the standard curriculum,” said Ross.

Yarborough sums it up: “The Tuscola program is fortunate to have such dedicated leaders as John and Beth. They love their students and they love their community. It is not a job to these folks; it is a mission.”

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