By Tom Larson
Anyone who's been paying even a little attention the last few years wouldn't be surprised to learn that the Morris Area Agriculture Program was named Outstanding Middle Secondary Program by the Minnesota Association of Agriculture Educators.
Morris Area teacher Natasha Mortenson has developed a series of classes that educate students about the nuts-and-bolts of agriculture -- past, present and future - while also making it fun.
"Agriculture is always going to be an issue," Mortenson said, "and there's always toom for more ideas. Things like renewable energy are bigger monsters than people realize, but it creates great opportunities in agriculture."
Morris Area is in the third of eight regions in the state competition. The program will be honored during a banquet in July.
"It's kind of a big deal," Mortenson said with a smile. "The program has grown a lot."
More and more, Minnesota agriculture is being counted on for food, fiber and, to a greater extent every year, fuel. Making students aware of how it all affects their lives is the foundation of Morris Area's program, she said.
"The students have to know that they can make a huge difference in the world," Mortenson said. "This affects everybody."
Morris Area's ag class offerings include animal sciences, ag management, robotics and electronics, horticulture and landscaping, wildlife and natural resources, career skills, and an 8th grade ag class.
"Every hour, I get to teach something different," Mortenson said. "I love that."
Teaching students who won't directly be involved in agriculture is as important as instructing those who will. Agriculture's all-encompassing reach into modern life makes such education vital, she said.
"It's important that we have kids see the connection to what they see when they drive outside the city limits and what they see in the grocery store," Mortenson said.
Projects that Morris Area has incorporated into the curriculum includes biomass and gasification, and wind energy. Students use extremely small-scale burners - experiementing with all kinds of "fuels" like Cheetos, Fritos and beans - for hands-on experience about how large systems work. Students also build scale-model wind simulators and have contests to see which can create the most energy.
In addition to experimenting with solar energy and ethanol kits, Mortenson has the students currently working on a project to create biodiesel.
"The big, lofty goal is to have a bus in the district that can run on biodiesel the students create," Mortenson said.
The program is working to buy a four-gallon biodiesel processor, and then use smaller units to manufacture the fuel from waste oil from area restaurants and other sources, she said.
"Kids love it," Mortenson said. "It's so experimental. I tell the kids that there are no dumb ideas. You have to figure out if it works."
The program receives wide-ranging support from ag groups and local industries and businesses. Grants also play a large role in financially supporting Morris Area's initiatives.
"A lot of this is so new so there are a lot of grants available," Mortenson said. "The businesses around here have been great; all you have to do is ask. I think people forget sometimes to ask because people here have been very generous."
The Morris Area program currently is working with the Stevens County Farm Bureau and Stevens County Pork Producers to initiate an "Ag in the Classroom" program. FFA students would travel to metropolitan areas to talk with students with little or no knowledge about rural life and inform them of the ways agriculture affects their lives.
"We're figuring out how to feed a growing population," Mortenson said. "That's science, it's not just producers. It's huge and it affects everyone, and I want kids to know that."