|(CAPE MAY COURTHOUSE) – Hans Toft has gone down to Great Sound every
day for the past 35 years and, he says, each day
he learns something new. And that is what he has
been passing on to his Agriculture and Natural
Resources students at Cape May County Technical
School in Cape May Courthouse.
New Jersey Secretary of Agriculture
Charles M. Kuperus toured Toft’s classroom recently to highlight the need
for new agriculture, food and natural resources professionals. In a classroom
that looks more like an aquarium than a traditional schoolroom, students grow
tilapia, and tend eels, sea bass and stripers. They even have a small shark in
a tank that poked its head out of the water when Kuperus stopped to view it.
“To sustain agriculture in New Jersey and keep it viable, we must ensure
there are trained leaders and workers to take the industry into the future,” said
Secretary Kuperus. “Agricultural and natural resources education programs
like the one in Cape May help to equip the next generation to manage tomorrow’s
food, agriculture and environmental industries.”
More than 1,000 students have passed through Toft’s classroom over the
last three decades and in the past 10 years the program has turned toward aquatic
farming – or aquaculture, the growing of fish and shellfish. The students
learn to grow and catch clams and oysters, grow tilapia and trap crabs. Toft
says the program is unique in that it involves salt-water aquaculture, whereas
other high school and many college aquaculture programs do not.
During his visit, the students led Secretary
Kuperus on a tour of their classroom and a walk to Great Sound. Their enthusiasm
for the program was evident as they eagerly showed the Secretary their work.
They had just smoked eel and pulled off pieces for the Secretary to try.
Toft believes clams, oysters, crabs, eels and tilapia will be important to the
aquaculture industry in the future. He says these are high value products without
a negative environmental impact.
“It is important that students understand their connection with the land
and the water,” said Toft. “They are better able to understand that
connection when they grow and then eat their food. When they know where their
food has come from they can see that they must help keep the water and the land
clean for future generations.”
More than 2,200 students in 46 school districts around the state are enrolled
in agriculture, food and natural resource education programs. The programs consist
of three parts: class/lab instruction, field work, and FFA, a national youth
organization, which prepares its members for leadership careers in science, business
and technology of agriculture.
Secretary Kuperus stressed that hands-on training is vitally important for students
wishing to enter the agriculture, food, and natural resources industries. And,
the young adults in Toft’s class find themselves out at Great Sound almost
daily, checking oyster and clam racks, pulling up crab pots, or seining, the
practice of fishing using a vertical net with weights at the lower end and floats
at the top end. Daily, they must tend to the tanks in the classroom, testing
and cleaning the water and feeding the fish. All fish and shellfish grown or
caught is eaten, either by the class or teachers, or given to the food service
students in the school to cook.
Toft says he works cooperatively with other teachers in the school, including
JoAnne Sopchak, the agricultural education teacher, who is the Cape May FFA advisor.
Science teacher James McKinley and his class built the outdoor trout ponds; the
carpentry shop builds the clam and oyster racks; and Toft’s class gives
lessons to the English classes on “The Old Man and the Sea,” explaining
what a marlin is and using eels as bait.
“Through this interdisciplinary
approach, students learn valuable communications skills,” said Toft.
New labor statistics show there is a demand for well-rounded workers in the agriculture,
food and natural resources industries, especially those with skills learned in
Ms. Sopchak’s program. Her students learn horticultural and turf management
skills, through turf, greenhouse and landscape management courses. Students grow
poinsettias and other crops in the school’s greenhouses, actively landscape
the school grounds and prepare for careers in turf management such as golf course
and recreational turf management.
Secretary Kuperus with Toft and Sopchak at the Great Sound.
The New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development reports that there
will be an average of 220 annual job openings in the landscaping and grounds
keeping fields in Atlantic and Cape May Counties between now and 2010.
“For students to get the background they’ll need in the job market,
they must have quality programs of instruction delivered by motivated teachers,” said
Secretary Kuperus. “By supporting agriculture, food and natural resources
programs in our schools, we hope to supply the industry with the skilled professionals
it is demanding.”