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Valley College ag instructor, Leo Garcia

A year ago, just four students enrolled as freshmen to study agriculture at Wenatchee Valley College in central Washington. This year, the incoming ag class has 26 students.

WVC ag instructor Leo Garcia said the last time the ag department had a full class of incoming students was in 2002. Since then, the numbers have ranged between two and seven.

The price of apples

He believes that a healthy tree fruit economy is among several factors that are attracting more ag students. Prices for apples, in particular, have been strong for the last ­couple of seasons, and the outlook is positive.

Young people see a good future in agriculture, he said. "The industry’s doing well. People feel more hopeful."

The ailing general economy could be a factor, too, he thinks. When fewer jobs are available, people tend to go back to school.

He also believes changes in the college’s ag program are a factor. At one time, the program focused exclusively on tree fruits. Garcia said the program has been restructured to meet the more diverse needs of agriculture students and provide more options. Six of this year’s freshmen students take classes at Big Bend Community College in Moses Lake, Washington, via ITV (interactive television).

Land laboratory

The agriculture program includes field-based instruction at the college’s ten-acre orchard in East Wenatchee. Tree fruit students work an entire season in the orchard, experiencing everything from planting, to pest management, weed control, irrigation, thinning, harvest, quality control, fall cleanup, and ­pruning.

At one time, the orchard had 45 acres of fruit trees, but it was scaled back as the number of students declined. Garcia plans to rebuild the orchard and diversify with other crops such as grapes, blueberries, and other berries. It’s now known as the "land lab."

Graduates are qualified to work as professional horticulturists or orchard managers. WVC has an articulation agreement with Washington State University enabling students to go on to study for a bachelor’s degree if they wish.

Garcia said members of the North Central Washington Fieldmen’s Association had been concerned about the aging of the existing horticulturists working in the tree fruit industry and the lack of young people coming into the profession.

The college has strengthened its ties with high schools, to let students know about the educational opportunities it offers as well as the career opportunities in the industry.

Hispanic program

Enrollment in the college’s Bilingual Agriculture Education Program has remained steady. Almost 700 students have gone through the program since it began 16 years ago. The program offers a variety of courses for Spanish-speaking orchard employees, including an ­introduction to horticulture, advanced horticulture, IPM technician, farm management, and introduction of ­viticulture.

It also offers pesticide license and forklift certification workshops, and can provide continuing education short courses for employers to offer.