JCHS innovative program leads the way in agriculture education
By Jonathan PleasantJohnson County High School boasts one of the most innovative and successful agriculture programs in the region. Representatives from across the nation and around the world have come to the school to observe some of the agriculture program’s facilities including the fishery, Hydroponics, and aquaculture technologies. Most students in the program are also in the Future Farmers of America (FFA), and together the organization helps to give students some of the crucial tools they need, not only in the field of agriculture, but also as future leaders of their communities.
The faculty of the agriculture program is made up of four teachers and two assistants. Harvey Burniston, a 28-year veteran of the agricultural field, works alongside Kenneth McQueen, Thomas Boyd, and Tracey Dugger. LaVonna Roush is an assistant in horticulture and Charlaine Long is the assistant in aquaculture. Together, this faculty currently supervises over 400 students in the Johnson County FFA, more than half of which are girls. More than 20 courses are offered in the field of agriculture that provide the knowledge and skills necessary to go to work following graduation or to continue on to college.
Burniston has been witness to the changes over the last decade that have revolutionized Johnson County’s agriculture program. The first major improvements occurred in 1994 when the Hydroponics technology was developed. This was followed by the creation of the fishery in 1997, which now produces 20-25,000 pounds of fish each year. The fishery primarily grows Tilapia, an edible and successful African fish that grow as much as a pound and a half each year. The Tilapia was partially chosen because they are also one of the healthiest fish to eat, having half the calories of salmon. In addition to Tilapia, the students also work with Koi, a fish grown for water gardens and ornamental purposes.
The fishery at the school has been so successful and well known that international representatives from countries such as Australia, Korea, and Kurdistan have visited the facilities in hopes of utilizing the designs in their own countries. Representatives of 38 states and 20 countries have come to see the Johnson County programs, especially in the field of geothermal technology. Students also get a valuable opportunity to utilize leadership skills by giving tours of the grounds and various programs to visitors.
Developing the program has led Johnson County students to achieve numerous awards in various FFA competitions, even on a state level. The Johnson County FFA achieved third place in the state land judging competition, with a team consisting of Emily Sajdak, Aubrey Long, Austin Perdue, and Gary Johnson. In the district competition Johnson County students secured first place in both parliamentary procedure, prepared speaking, and FFA Creed. Hannah Dugger was the competitor in prepared speaking, while Tia Pennington achieved the award in FFA Creed, and the team of Rachel Dugger, Elizabeth Grindstaff, Hannah Dugger, Julia Lipford, Kaila Hodges, and Lucy Gibson, earned the parliamentary procedure award.
The ultimate goal of many of the programs at the school is to allow students to be able to keep up with the changing face of agriculture and be better prepared for its future. The goal of most large scale farming operations now is to grow more food on less land. With hydroponics and aquaculture what was formerly grown on ten acres can now be grown in a one-acre green house. The students at Johnson County are learning the methods that are revolutionizing agriculture today.
Although recognition for the program has not been actively advertised, word of mouth and a high reputation for the school have secured several articles in well-known publications, including USA Today and the Houston Chronicle. Most recently the program was featured in the FFA’s own national magazine, FFA Horizons and The Progressive Farmer.
As Johnson County High School continues to provide its students with innovative educational opportunities in the field of agriculture, its notoriety will no doubt continue to increase. Along with a strong connection to the FFA the program stands as a proud and valuable asset to Johnson County that is providing possibilities that students wouldn’t be able to receive elsewhere. According to Burniston, “I feel we can help students no matter what their career choice. No matter what field they chose, whether it is biology, math, chemistry, or any other, this program has something to offer.”