With asphalt and retail stores rapidly covering the land, new arrivals to the more-urbanized areas of Columbia County may have a hard time realizing that not so many years ago the community was dominated by agriculture.
A 1959 farm census showed the county had 425 working farms, with everything from cattle to cotton; the most recent census shows there are just 196, many of them nothing more than fields for harvesting hay to supply horse owners.
As love of the land gradually slips out of reach of younger residents growing up on suburban streets, it may seem easy to let agricultural education disappear from the school system. But to do so would not only break an important link to our regional heritage; it also could hurt Georgia's future.
Gov. Sonny Perdue this week stepped in to emphatically defend the state's agricultural education programs, just days after State School Superintendent Kathy Cox proposed cuts and changes in the way such programs are funded.
Cox's staff says the cuts wouldn't have come out of any classrooms or from the Future Farmers of America program, but instead would focus on "redirecting" the way funding is used for such initiatives as the Young Farmers Program and the state's canning plants.
Perdue, a veterinarian who is from middle Georgia, perhaps brings to the table a better basic understanding of the importance of agriculture than does Cox, an educator from the Atlanta suburbs. He says the money will stay in the budget.
For now, that provides a window of opportunity for agriculture interests to demonstrate that ag education can be an important part of a balanced educational diet. Cox's department believes agricultural students score poorly in science; if so, it is up to agribusiness to do a better job of demonstrating that modern farming, from genetic experiments to environmental studies, needs graduates with a strong background in science.
Cox, like other agency heads in the state, is faced with the task of how to best use scarce tax dollars, and she's appointing a task force to review agricultural education. At the same time, Perdue is reassuring farming interests that Georgia schools won't leave children ignorant about the importance of agriculture.
Sooner or later, the competing philosophies will have to reach a resolution. Half urban, half rural, Columbia County is a good place to study the conflict. With strong agriculture programs at Evans and Harlem High, it's also a proving ground for how such programs can be a success without hurting academics.
Perhaps Cox's task force should take a look here for ideas. While she's at it, she should talk to a product of our school system: Columbia County Commissioner Lee Anderson, a former member of the county Board of Education -- and a full-time farmer.
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