Ag education teachers are in demand across North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota
Many of the agricultural education openings in the northern Plains are the result of the addition of programs at high schools and career technical centers or expansion of existing programs.
MADDOCK, N.D. — Gary Wald knew that farming was not an option when he returned to North Dakota in 1972 from a stint in the Army during the Vietnam War, so he started an agricultural career that he considered the best thing.
“My dad was only 42-years-old and my younger brother wanted to farm with him so I had to do something else. I said 'I'm going into ag education so I can be involved in agriculture,’” Wald said.
Wald, then-26, taught agricultural education classes for the next several decades, beginning his career in 1974 at Lake Area Career and Technology Center in Devils Lake, North Dakota, before moving to Maddock, North Dakota , in 1977 where he taught at Maddock High School for nine years.
In 1988 Wald pivoted from his career in agricultural education to sell farm insurance, but he missed teaching. So in 1998 he resumed the career at Four Winds High School in Fort Totten, North Dakota, where he taught for five years. In 2003, Wald returned to Maddock to teach agricultural education.
Wald, now 75, is retiring in spring 2023 after a total of 37 years of teaching agricultural education in North Dakota. His retirement leaves an opening for an agricultural education teacher, one of 14 in that field in high schools and at career and technology centers across the state.
Agricultural education has seen major changes in the nearly 40 years since Wald has been teaching.
“When I started it was ‘Cows and plows and sows,' but now, it’s agricultural science, it’s natural resources. It's really expanded,” Wald said.
Now he uses technology, including drones, Versaz lasers and 3-D printers in his classroom to teach his classes.
Wald’s profession has changed not only in terms of what is taught, but also in the number of programs in North Dakota and across the northern Plains. His career also illustrates the marketable skills that agricultural education teaches, which demonstrates why the number of programs have grown, leading to many unfilled positions in the state and in South Dakota, Minnesota and across the entire United States.
“We’re all experiencing this,” said Adam Marx, North Dakota State University associate professor and program evaluation specialist. “I think if we look at just the landscape of the teacher shortage in agricultural education, nationwide, we are roughly in the same position we were 10 years ago.”
While those shortages had been the result of retirements, in 2023, retirement is not the most common reason that positions are available across the northern Plains.
Instead, many of the agricultural education jobs that are available in North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota are the result of the addition of programs at high schools and career technical centers or expansion of existing programs.
In North Dakota about a dozen agricultural education teaching positions have been added in the past nine years, Marx said.
“Of course, that contributes to demand,” he said.
“Agricultural education has emerged in communities that didn’t have agricultural education, previously,” Marx said. “It has expanded because of demand, and it has replaced industrial arts and technical education positions, and that has created more positions.”
The agricultural education landscape is similar in Minnesota.
“The demand is just crazy. It’s unreal,” said Nathan Purrington, agricultural education lead at University of Minnesota Crookston. “I have had several emails and phone calls saying we’re adding or having an opening in their programs.”
Of the 36 agricultural education job openings in Minnesota as of March 6, 2023, just one was available because of retirement, said Lavyne Rada, University of Minnesota Teacher Induction Program for agricultural educators advisor and Minnesota FFA program manager and regional supervisor.
“It’s not a retention issue. It’s a growth issue. It’s a great problem to have,” Rada said.
In South Dakota, there also is demand for agricultural education teachers to fill programs across the state, said Laura Hasselquist, South Dakota State University School of Education assistant professor.
“We’re seeing this tremendous growth in programs in urban districts, rural programs that are starting up,” Hasselquist said. “They have some really high quality agricultural programs in the suburbs.”
Agricultural education programs in North Dakota also are growing because of the expansion of career and technical education programs, said Nikki Fideldy-Doll, North Dakota agricultural education supervisor and North Dakota state FFA advisor.
“Teachers can teach a variety of things that fall under agricultural education,” Fideldy-Doll said. North Dakota has nine career and technical centers and many schools across the state have at least one in-house agricultural education program.
Wald teaches six classes including agriscience, agriculture mechanics and community development to junior high and high school students at Maddock High School. He also is the high school’s FFA advisor.
Wald taught valuable lessons inside and outside of the classroom, said Hailey Maddock, one of his former students. Maddock is North Dakota FFA state vice president and a freshman at NDSU.
“He taught me about responsibility and work ethic and that, obviously, helps me a lot in college when you want to procrastinate and you need to get something done,” Maddock said.
Maddock, who is pursuing a degree in journalism at NDSU, believes that agricultural education classes are important for high school students, no matter what career path they choose.
“Agricultural literacy is getting lower and lower as time goes on," Maddock said. "When people get involved in agricultural education, they learn about the positive impact it has on the world.
“It allows us to raise a generation that understands the importance of agriculture in the world, not just in our small communities,” Maddock continued.
Secondary agricultural education programs also give students the opportunity to learn about the agricultural careers available to them if they choose not to work on a farm, said Hasselquist, who grew up on a northwest Wisconsin dairy farm.
For example, her own experience taking agricultural education classes, combined with her 4-H and FFA memberships, convinced her to pursue a career in agricultural education.
Her agricultural education teacher played an important part in that decision by demonstrating the influence that she could have on students someday by being a mentor like he was.
Wald, who enjoys his job and has kept teaching in hopes that finding a replacement for him would become less challenging, has procrastinated on his retirement, first considering it about eight years ago. At the urging of his students, he pushed the date forward.
“They’d say ‘Just wait until I get through,’” he said. His children convinced him to set a retirement date and stick to it. Wald’s teaching career will coincide with the end of the 2022-23 Maddock High School year.
Wald won't be easy to replace.
“He has a great relationship with the students and all the years and years of experience he brings to the students,” said Ben Allmaras, Maddock High School principal and superintendent.
Wald is an example of the kind of dedication to his agricultural education career that NDSU seeks to recruit, Marx said.
“There’s hardly anyone who has a better heart to see young people grow and succeed,” he said.
Being a successful agricultural education teacher isn’t only about what and how you teach, but also where, he said.
“Gary Wald is an excellent fit for his high school and community,” Marx said. “I think it’s a lot about where a person finds a fit for their school or community."
“It has been a fantastic community,” Wald said. “Since I’ve been here, they’ve built the community center, they’re built the technical center and they’ve built the event center. It was a good place to raise our seven children.”
Editor's note: This is the first part in a series looking at ag teachers in the region.