There was plenty of work to be done in the greenhouses at the Cape May County Technical High School in Cape May Court House.

Her foot in a cast from surgery, teacher JoAnn Sopchak supervised from her desk last week as students peppered her with questions about watering and repotting plants.

“Should we water the jade plants?” a student asked from the doorway.

“Only if they are so dry the dirt is pulling away from the side of the pot,” Sopchak said, turning to explain to a visitor the importance of correct watering.

Sopchak teaches the Agriculture Education Program at Cape Tech, one of 42 schools in New Jersey that offer an agriculture program. Some programs have been threatened by budget cuts, but Nancy Trivette, agriculture program director in the New Jersey Department of Agriculture’s Office of Agriculture Education, said high school programs are holding their own overall, with about 2,500 students participating. 

“The high school programs reflect the local industry,” Trivette said. “There really is so much to agriculture from production to sales. We want to prepare students for all areas.”

Coordinated with the state Department of Agriculture, the courses target the needs of agribusinesses — from vegetable farming to greenhouse management or dairy cows. While hands-on learning remains key, the national Curriculum for Agriculture Science Education, or CASE, is being introduced in 13 high schools in New Jersey, including Cumberland Regional, Buena Regional and the Ocean County Vocational high schools.

Agriculture is the third-largest industry in the state after pharmaceuticals and tourism, Department of Agriculture data show. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service reported the state’s 10,300 farms generated almost $1.2 billion in receipts in 2010. Greenhouse and nursery businesses make up more than 40 percent of the farm receipts followed by blueberries with 6 percent. And while farms are scattered statewide, Atlantic and Cumberland generated almost 30 percent of all agriculture sales in the state in 2007, according to USDA data, ranking them the top two counties. 

“It is hard to get people to think of it as a science and not just a vocational program,” said Patricia Thorne, who teaches three courses at Buena Regional. “But it is based on science. You have to know biology and physiology and math to understand plants and how to make them grow. All we do differently is apply what they learn.”

Cumberland County College is also helping high schoolers make a smooth transition to the college program. Director James Prices said even someone who just wants to start a small landscaping business should understand both agriculture and business if they want to be successful. 

“It’s not just buying a mower and pickup truck,” he said. 

Behind the football field at Cumberland Regional High School in rural Upper Deerfield Township is a grain field, managed by students in one of the largest area high school agricultural programs. Open to all students in the county through the state’s public school choice program, almost 300 students take at least one of the eight classes on either a vocational or a college track program. Courses include turf and nursery science, production/greenhouse, agribusiness, and research and development. 

“The CASE track is for students who want to go on to college, and the vocational track is for students who plan to go directly to work,” said Cumberland Regional curriculum supervisor Greg McGraw. He said school officials meet twice a year with the local agriculture advisory board, and the turf and nursery class grew out of their recommendations. 

Cumberland Regional teacher Nichol Carroll said because CASE is nationally standardized it is known by colleges, which helps students who apply. The vocational courses can lead to jobs.

“We want to make our students marketable no matter what their goal,” she said.

Sopchak includes food science in Cape Tech’s program and would like to develop a course on growing grapes for the local winery businesses. Her program was one of six nationwide to receive the National Association of Agricultural Educators Outstanding Middle/Secondary Agricultural Education Program Award last year.

“We started with landscaping and golf course management, but that’s not all we do,” Sopchak said. Students have planted vegetable and flower gardens, and host annual plant sales to raise money for the school’s Future Farmers of America chapter, the reason for all the geraniums. They’ve discussed the agribusiness of chocolate and the challenges of growing medicinal-grade marijuana. 

Buena Regional’s program focuses on horticulture, and Thorne’s students are building small hydroponic and aquaponic systems. About 30 students take the courses and Thorne said she is grateful that the school has continued to support the program. 

“Some of the students go on to landscaping or floral design businesses, and others just take the courses as an elective because they like flowers,” she said. “It does surprise them how much science there is.”

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