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Top-Notch Ag Education Program in the Middle of New York City

In the midst of urban Queens, New York, sits a 4-acre plot so diverse with animals and plants, it gives zoos and botanical centers a run. Goats? Yes. Rabbits? You bet. Cages and cages of snakes and reptiles? Of course. An assortment of exotic birds? Check. Add to that rows of field crops, an orchard, and a greenhouse. Part of the surprise is its surroundings, just miles from midtown Manhattan. The other part is that it’s on the premises of John Bowne High School, part of the New York City public school system. Faculty and students call it the “land lab.”

Faculty are proud to say that John Bowne High School and agriculture go hand in hand, and it’s true. The agricultural education program here actually pre-dates the school. 

During World War I, young men and women were recruited from New York City to work on farms upstate in order to fill the vacant positions of men fighting overseas. After the war, many of the young men who moved to work on farms requested to learn more about agriculture. By coincidence, a New York City reform school with a farm was being closed in Queens, so an agricultural education program was established in 1917. The school farm has shrunk considerably since then, with Queens College and the high school taking up some of the space, but the program at John Bowne High School has been growing strong since 1964. Eight agriculture teachers serve about 600 students. About half of those students are FFA members. In total, the school serves roughly 2,800 students.

The program has been recognized nationally for its urban agricultural education model. It’s even been a favorite of  USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue, who visited the school in October 2017 and invited students to ring the closing bell with him at the New York Stock Exchange in October. “Having him visit the school was such a wonderful experience,” says Patryja Zbrzezny, one of the school’s agriculture teachers. “He seemed to love interacting with the students. He got dirty harvesting in the field, and he collected eggs with them. He was very hands-on.” 

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Students work in the high school’s 4-acre land lab, which includes field crops, an orchard, and more. 

successful-farming-january-cover
From Our January Issue: Guest Editor Sonny Perdue, Secretary of Agriculture

Why this story matters to me: "Educating the next generation of agriculturists is critically important, and the agriculture education program at John Bowne High School blew me away. The ability to teach students about farming and agriculture in an urban setting like New York City is something I hope can be replicated around the nation. Students today are the future of American agriculture, and it’s our responsibility to show them all the possibilities they can achieve.” – Sonny Perdue

Turning Out Agriculturists

Freshman and sophomore agriculture students take both plant and animal science classes, which allows them to decide at the end of their sophomore year what they would like to focus on during their junior and senior years. The program also requires them to continue their studies the summer between their freshman and sophomore years. “We call it ‘land lab summer,’ ” says Steven Perry, assistant principal of the school’s agriculture department. “They spend half of the day indoors taking ag classes and the other half out on the farm. Not only are we teaching ag, but also it’s the beginning of their work training. They’re going to get a plot of vegetables that they can keep, but they’re going to give back to the program by working our farm plot.” 

It’s worth noting that the school typically doesn’t turn out production farmers, Perry says. “Our goal is to turn out agriculturalists in any related field,” he says. 

The school does, however, offer students the opportunity to work on farms through the New York State Department of Labor Farm Cadet Program. As part of this program, students live and work with a farm family for the summer on dairy, horse, goat, and vegetable operations. 

“The majority of our students start out wanting to be veterinarians,” notes Zbrzezny. Some change their minds after they’re exposed to other opportunities in agriculture, such as the plant sciences. “We see a lot of students go on to study horticulture and animal science in college. Then, in college, they focus in on whatever sparks their interest.” 

Sophomore Destiny Irizarry plans to pursue a degree and career in animal science. “This school helped me lock in my decision to do that,” she says. “I’ve wanted to work with animals since I was 7 years old, but this school really made me want to pursue those goals.”

Irizarry commutes up to two hours one way from Brooklyn to Queens, and she wouldn’t have it any other way. “It’s always worth it,” she says. “I love being here, working with the animals and helping the teachers.”

Senior Valentina Krusel, who serves as the John Bowne FFA Chapter treasurer, also plans to use her agricultural education after high school. “I’m interested in wildlife and marine biology,” she says. “A job as a wildlife rehabilitator or a marine biologist sounds
really fun. Both are areas I’ve studied here.” 

Krusel is a member of the FFA chapter’s aquaculture team. She placed fifth in the state individually last year, which she says helped build her interest in marine biology and her overall understanding of agricultural themes. 

“I learned a lot about fish identification and how to raise fish. Even if I don’t pursue a career in marine biology or wildlife, I have a good understanding of plant and animal sciences,” she says.

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Freshmen and sophomores take plant and animal science classes, which allows them to decide where their interests lie.

Bright futureS

After students complete all program requirements and pass a national assessment exam, they receive an extra seal of endorsement on their diplomas indicating they graduated from a state-approved career and technical education program.

Patryja-Zbrzezny
Patryja Zbrzezny
Graduates of the John Bowne agriculture program often attend agricultural and technical colleges throughout the northeast and commonly find work as veterinarians, landscape architects, teachers, florists, animal laboratory technicians, and other plant- and animal-related jobs.

The access John Bowne agriculture students have to crops, animals, teachers, and even government officials is fascinating, and the excitement they have for their coursework is contagious. It seems to be the nutrient that grows strong generations of agriculturists. 

For students here, the future looks bright.

“I see great futures for my students,” Zbrzezny says. “Today, a small percentage of America’s population feeds us, but I see that growing. I’ve seen a lot of urban farms pop up and small local farms on the outskirts of the city. I hope we’ll have more and more of our population get back into agriculture.”

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