CUMBERLAND — When high schools in Allegany County open their doors next week there will be no agriculture science or Future Farmers of America club available to students for the first time in more than 80 years.
Lee Heavner, the last full time agricultural science teacher in the school system, retired in 2011 after teaching the program for 35 years.
“It’s very disappointing,” said Heavner.
T.R. Robinette, a former student of Heavner’s, is the president of the Allegany County Farm Bureau.
“It’s a shame,” said Robinette.
The FFA became an official national organization in 1928. Agricultural science and the FFA organization was introduced in the local school system in the early 1930s.
“It began in the schools here in 1931. Mrs. Elsie Hill Roland ran it from 1931 to 1964,” said Heavner.
Heavner gave an emotional tribute and goodbye to the FFA at the Aug. 11 meeting of the Allegany County Board of Education.
“It will always be a part of me,” said Heavner.
Although ag science and the FFA continues to thrive in the neighboring counties of Maryland and West Virginia, it ran into trouble shortly after Heavner retired.
David Cox, superintendent of schools, told the Times-News after the board meeting that the program suffered from falling enrollment and the economic challenges of keeping a qualified teacher for the program.
The history of agricultural science and the FFA has been a long one. In order to have FFA in schools, you must have a agricultural science program at the high school.
Flintstone High School, closed during school consolidation in 2000, contained a strong ag science program for many years. Located in the eastern part of Allegany County, it was the home base of the ag science and FFA program. When Flintstone closed, the students and the program were transferred to Fort Hill High School.
Heavner continued to teach the program at Fort Hill.
“We were doing well at Fort Hill,” he said.
Ag science was a four-year program during the years it thrived under Heavner.
However, following Heavner’s retirement in June 2011, the program began to disintegrate. The program was transferred once again to the Center for Career and Technical Education in Cresaptown and made a part-time program.
Cox said it was disappointing to close the program completely, but falling enrollment did not make it feasible to hire a teacher.
Robinette said the problem could have been handled differently.
“We use to have a wonderful ag program when we were at Flintstone. Agriculture is the largest industry in the state. I gave the board a list of the jobs in the industry. We told them what needed to be done,” said Robinette.
Although agriculture is relatively small in mountainous Allegany County, it thrives across the state.
According to state statistics, approximately 350,000 people are employed in some aspect of agriculture, making it the largest commercial industry in Maryland. Agriculture also remains the largest single land use in the state, with 2 million acres, or roughly 32 percent of total land area, used for farming in 2014.
“They (the school board) didn’t want to listen to what we had to say. They have neglected the program,” said Robinette.
Heavner said ag science is a lot more than simply farming. He said it’s about environmental science, forest management, agribusiness, horticulture and various animal sciences.
“The CCTE is not the place for it. It (ag science/FFA) needs to be in the home schools (Fort Hill, Mountain Ridge and Allegany). It needs to be a four-year program. When it was full time at Fort Hill it was great,” said Robinette.
Heavner said he will not stop trying to bring ag science back.
“I’m going to fight for the program. It is still a part of me. I feel like it is my fault. But they tell me it’s not,” said an emotional Heavner.
Robinette said the school board needs to take another look.
“They make it all about the money. They are missing an opportunity. You can’t pay a substitute teacher poverty wages and keep it going,” said Robinette.
Follow Greg Larry on Twitter @GregLarryCTN.