It’s humid inside Payson High School’s greenhouse, and the pH level of the water inside a big, circular tank that will eventually hold fish is too high.
“I can’t figure it out,” said Agriculture teacher Wendell Stevens. The high pH, which is a measure of acidity, killed the catfish that students raised during the warmer months.
Stevens plans to test the water with goldfish before filling the tank with the winter school of rainbow fish. For now, daily pH tests follow the injection of chemicals to neutralize the water.
“We just want to make sure our environment is fish friendly,” Stevens said.
However, students in Stevens’ agriculture class will learn more than aquiculture and animal science.
“The raising of the fish is not necessarily the goal here,” he said. Instead, students learn troubleshooting and the responsibility of caring for another living thing.
Agriculture class “prepares you for life, if you had to put it in one sentence,” Stevens said.
Stevens started the agriculture program in 1980 with no classroom and no students. The first year, Stevens “convinced” 35 kids to take his class. Now, anywhere from 80 to 120 students enroll every year.
The program’s focus is supposed to be animal science, but there’s no space for large animals. Students learn in a greenhouse and a computer lab, and are encouraged to participate in rodeo and the county fair.
Recently, agriculture students past and present flooded a school board meeting to encourage board members to approve a program development plan that included a new $1 million building.
But with a downtrodden economy and a slew of other projects that the district also needs to finance, the agriculture program’s future is uncertain.
Stevens says he understands, and emphasizes that the district has been supportive of the agriculture program.
He plans to retire in two years, and says a new building could help attract a teacher who wants to stay another 30 years.
“I just want to give this program every chance to land a real good teacher,” Stevens said. “The teacher is the backbone of the program.”
Stevens says stability is important for continuing to attract students. Parents also like stability.
“I’m getting kids, their parents had me a generation ago.”
Senior Weston Murray is one of those kids. His parents told him about the agriculture program, and now he, too, is taking Stevens’ class.
“It helped them a lot,” Murray said. The science and leadership skills are helping him be a successful high school student, he added.
Students seem happy with the program as is, Stevens said. “It’s the only program they know.”
Students grow tomatoes and lettuce in the greenhouse, learn that fish feces can double as plant fertilizer, and learn to give animals shots by injecting oranges.
The lesson is an important one — if a needle breaks off in an animal, the animal must be killed. “Oranges are pretty good,” Stevens says. “You just make do with what you have.”
Today’s students demand a higher action quotient in their studies, Stevens said. “They’re not just going to take lecture.”
And Stevens has not only survived; he’s thrived, even winning Arizona Agriculture Educator of the Year in 2007.
The first in his family to attend college, Stevens lives his agricultural roots.
“The agriculture industry has a lot of jobs,” Stevens said. “Jobs that won’t go overseas.”
Besides farming and ranching, bio-technology like plant engineering is a burgeoning industry.
And even if kids start careers outside agriculture, the responsibility and fun of Stevens’ class will last the rest of their lives.
For his part, Stevens says he wants to make sure his retirement doesn’t squelch the program.
“The guy that started it doesn’t want to be the one that closes it.”