Forget Punxsutawney Phil and his shadow – those February lambs on Curt Hughes’ farm are a sure sign that spring is already here.

Curt – no one calls him Curtis! – Hughes is a farmer’s farmer. Whether he’s out standing in his well-limed and fertilized fields – rich with grasses whose deep roots fend off erosion – keeping a weather eye on the calves being born, or inspecting this year’s bumper crop of lambs in the barn, you can bet this still-trying-to-retire West Greene vo-ag teacher is doing it right.

The Greene County Conservation District took note in 2018 when it named him Outstanding Cooperator of the Year for his “accomplishments and commitment to the conservation of soil, water and related resources through implementation of agricultural practice.”

A beautifully framed aerial photograph of the Hughes family farm sporting this inscription hangs on a wall in his home on Shelby Road, Holbrook, next door to the house he grew up in.

“That’s me on the tractor,” Hughes points to a dot on the road cutting through the lush vista of autumn leaves framing acres of healthy pastures that stretch from the road in all directions, climbing the hillsides, cupping the pond and framing the farmhouses and buildings below. The house in the center, surrounded by barns and outbuildings, is where Hughes grew up in a family of educators including father Byron, the first vo-ag (vocational agriculture) teacher in West Greene School District.

We’re sitting at the dining room table, talking and drinking coffee in the house Hughes began building in 1988 when he returned home to pick up where his dad was leaving off after 43 years.

Hughes’ wife, Jody, brings out cookies and we look at photos of the farm that span 70-some years of good stewardship. Good stewardship is both a family tradition and a science, something that has been part of education since the land grant colleges of America were formed after the Civil War to teach farmers better soil management and animal husbandry and, later, the new technologies of internal combustion engines, electricity and the mechanics that ushered in the 20th century. These subjects were taught as vocations that morphed into the science and technology classes offered in high schools today.

In Greene County, farming was a family affair and kids learned from their dads and granddads. As communities got big enough to warrant high schools, some began offering this training if their budgets allowed.

In the mid-1950s, there were four high schools in the sprawling western end of the county – in Aleppo, Richhill, Center and Morris townships, Hughes tells me. Only Richhill and Center offered vo-ag, and “Dad and Max McMillan were the teachers.”

Byron had a couple of months’ seniority, so he became the vo-ag teacher and Max would go on to be a principal when the townships consolidated in 1955 and the new school district began building its high school on the banks of Hargus Creek near Rogersville. Vo-ag students would learn to work with animals, work on equipment, do construction and electrical work, weld, sharpen, sand and do joinery, then hit the books to learn best farming practices and land management.

Gary Wise of Jollytown chuckles when he remembers some of what he learned taking vo-ag at West Greene. “We’d lay down a weld and Byron – we called him Bairn – would come by and smack it with a sledge. If it went flying, we did it again. We learned to do things right!”

America’s taste buds would eventually change the way farmers did business. Beef would become leaner and wool sheep would give way to market lambs as a cash crop. Local farmers would become more tech savvy, environmentally aware and better marketers of their products, thanks to the vo-ag curriculum in schools that kept pace with the times. In time, girls would take vo-ag, too.

When Hughes graduated West Greene High School in 1975, he had no vocational agriculture classes under his belt. But, he admits he had plenty of experience at home, working with his dad and brothers on the farm year-round, and he knew he wanted to teach.

“Back then, kids went this route or this route – you couldn’t choose academic classes for college and take ag classes, too. I wanted to go to college, so I had to take the academic route. Things are different today. Students can take whatever classes they need. It’s not just having a farm, it’s animal and plant science, wildlife management, agricultural mechanics, any work that deals with environment.”

Hughes went off to college at his “family alma mater, Penn State. My dad met my mom there and she became an English teacher at West Greene after we were all in school.” He majored in agriculture education and spent his first working year teaching ninth- and 10th-graders in Lancaster.

This was a different agricultural community – factory poultry and egg farms were part of the landscape. So was the horse-and-buggy culture of Amish and Mennonite farm families. Mennonite kids were in his classes, and the New Holland baler company was just down the road. He took students on field trips to see how the baler mechanism tied knots for the square bales. New Holland, Hughes notes, has kept up with today’s beef farmers’ need for larger bales. “Now they make round balers.”

Hughes farm

An aerial view of the Hughes farm

A seven-year stint in the Penn State Extension office in Butler ended when Hughes headed home to take over the classroom and the shop, and train the next generation to work in agriculture and the environmental world at large.

Like his dad, Hughes had a summer contract to monitor student projects and be involved in local fairs, so his 30-year teaching career ran year round.

Classes expanded and Hughes’ students learned to work on the larger engines that industry was producing, along with computer management of projects, leadership courses and public speaking. Under his watch, a greenhouse was added and students learned horticulture then sold their plants at the end of the school year.

In 2018, Hughes retired and the school district hired two teachers to do his job, “one for the classroom and one for the mechanics end.”

Retirement was looking good. This is a second marriage for both Hughes and Jody. She is retired as a teller at Community Bank and, with their son Tyler living in the family farmhouse and helping out with chores, it looked like they might finally have some free time on their hands.

Hughes’ retirement lasted one semester.

Teacher Karlie Hoy Wright, herself from a farm family tradition, has taken Hughes’ place in the classroom and in the field, the greenhouse and the summer schedule of student projects and fairs – but the mechanical end is proving harder to fill permanently. “It’s hard to get teachers anymore,” he says. Teachers, that is, who have Hughes’ hands-on mechanical skills and the ability to teach them well.

“I’m back for two classes, welding and intro into agriculture – building and electricity and carpentry. I’m thinking about the kids.”

Hughes notes that those who can do the things he teaches are at a premium. “You can get hired just like that. These are the teachers we need right now.”

Farming and working with the natural world might not be for everyone, but understanding the environment and how we humans interact with it is good education for any kid who will grow up to make smart life choices and be healthy, I muse.

Hughes nods. “It’s important to know where your food comes from.”

And it doesn’t hurt to know how to fix things.

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