“I’ve got a question for you guys,” rancher Jason Chapman said as 12 Mazama High School students looked around his Poe Valley ranch. “What percentage of the U.S. population is involved in agriculture?”

The students, who had spent the morning learning about agriculture in the Klamath Basin, responded thoughtfully. “Eighteen?” “Twelve?” But they weren’t even close.

“Less than 2 percent provide food for you and your families,” Chapman told the youth as he gestured to the ranch’s 1,000 acres and its herd. “Worldwide, the U.S. provides 20 percent of the food for 7 billion of the world’s population.”

The role of agriculture in the Klamath Basin – and on the world stage – was the focus of the day for the young leaders in Mazama’s Future Business Leaders of America (FBLA) program, who are the pilot group for the first-ever Leadership Klamath Youth, a program started this year by the Klamath County Chamber of Commerce.

Education, society

Chapman was glad to be a part of it.

“We’re trying to educate youth and build strong leaders. If you have future politicians who have never stepped foot on a farm …. The more education you can give the future leaders of America, the better society’s going to be.”

Leadership Klamath Youth mimics the Leadership Klamath program, which started 29 years ago and has graduated more than 300 adult community members.

“One of the things I’ve wanted to do for the last 10 years is create a similar program for youth so we can provide the same type of opportunities and inspire future business leaders,” said Heather Tramp, executive director of the Klamath County Chamber of Commerce. She contacted Sergio Cisneros, the FBLA advisor and business teacher at Mazama High School, and he was on board.

“The idea is that we identify students who are hungry to broaden their understanding of the local area as it relates to business,” Cisneros said. “One of the areas I’m passionate about is bridging local high school students, local industry and business opportunities. Our goal is that every month, we identify a different industry within our area, and take this group of young leaders and expose them to these different opportunities, and more than anything, teach them about what that industry has to offer and the role it plays in our area.”

Plans are to expand the program to other high schools next year.

Community application

“In our classes and in our FBLA club, we learn a lot about business,” said Mazama senior and FBLA officer Gordon McCreadie as he finished a tour of Gold Dust Potatoes. “But to see the legitimate application within our own community, to get to talk to the manager and to hear their advice … and to have them teach us things that we can’t really learn in the classroom … it’s been super cool.”

The agriculture tour was the first of what will be a once-a-month, day-long event highlighting various industries and issues in the Basin. The students visited the Oregon State University Klamath Basin Research and Extension Center, Gold Dust Potatoes, Chapman Ranch, Klamath Community College/Oregon State University agriculture program, the Klamath Water Users Association and took a Bureau of Reclamation tour of the A Canal and Link River Dam.

The students started the day with Ian McGregor, a livestock extension agent with OSU KBREC and then traveled to Gold Dust Potatoes, where co-owner Weston Walker showed them how potatoes are processed and gave them a tour of the facilities. Students were able to watch the conveyor belts as they moved and washed the potatoes and transported them into the packing facility.

The purpose of the day also was to introduce students to possible careers in agriculture.

McGregor answered questions about careers and the work being done to improve the agriculture industry, listening and giving advice as students told him some of their career interests, which ranged from engineering, marketing and human resources to insurance, contract farming and real estate.

Excited, involved

“We think it’s very important for younger folks to start getting excited about agriculture and get involved,” he said. “The average age of your farmer or rancher is the late 50s or early 60s so we really need to work hard on generating this new crop of agricultural professionals so we can keep feeding our fellow Americans far into the future.”

Many of the students had little exposure to ranching and farming before the tour, and they said it opened their eyes.

“One of the things I definitely learned was the large process that surrounds our food, especially potatoes, from planting and harvesting to production,” said sophomore Nathan Hantzman. “And being able to see all that, how our food is grown and manufactured, was really eye-opening, seeing all the labor that’s behind it, and hard work, just to put food on our plates.”

Joanna Henry, a junior, didn’t realize how many career opportunities were available in agriculture, and said the technical process of farming and ranching were new to her as well.

“I didn’t know anything, honestly,” she said after listening to Chapman explain how the ranch reared and cared for its cattle. “And I’ve learned there are a lot of different career options.”

Students ended the day at the A Canal on the Link River, talking about water issues with representatives from the Bureau of Reclamation. They toured the headgates and the Link River Dam.

Brazil Cisneros, a senior, said the day was definitely educational and fun.

“I’m really satisfied with getting this opportunity,” she said. “It’s really awesome for students to get to learn about what happens in our community and what’s actually in the field of agriculture.”

Next month, Leadership Klamath Youth will learn about public safety.