Belle Fourche ag educator Austin Bishop grew up on a ranch near Hermosa and now helps his father-in-law with a cow-calf operation. His background in agriculture was a major influence on his decision to teach.

TEACHER FEATURE: Bishop brings drone certification to Belle Fourche ag program After about a 10-year hiatus, the ag program in Belle Fourche restarted in school year 2017-18. Austin Bishop took over the program in 2018-19, and the sky is literally the limit for his goals.

The district recently purchased a drone, and Bishop is leading students in his Ag Systems Technology class through an online program to prepare them to earn Federal Aviation Administration certification to pilot unmanned flying objects.

Bishop sees career and technical education moving toward providing students more and more opportunities to earn industry certifications. His Ag Mechanics students work on small engines and personal projects. Those who wish to advance further can work to earn the Briggs and Stratton Master Service Technician Certification.

“I feel like we’re still building the ag program,” Bishop says. “And I will probably still say that in another 30 years. I never want to lose my step, get caught behind with technology, or get caught behind teaching the same old thing because ‘that’s just what I teach.’ I’m always looking for something new.”

The Belle Fourche School District has invested heavily in CTE, including a new building that opened in 2018. Bishop says the goal of the district’s CTE program is 100% placement: “What we mean by 100% placement is that after graduation, a student who has taken at least two years of CTE courses is accepted to a college, a tech school, or they have a job. We don’t want any Belle Fourche graduate to say, ‘I have no idea what I’m doing next.’”

Bishop takes advantage of Belle Fourche’s location to offer students unique hands-on opportunities via the D.C. Booth Fish Hatchery for his Wildlife and Fisheries Capstone course, which he has broadly modeled on the Envirothon competition framework. He also brings in speakers from the Bureau of Land Management and South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks.

Some of his long-term goals include having 50% of Belle Fourche High School students enroll in the ag program. One of the ways he seeks to build enrollment in his program is by working to eliminate the stereotype that ag education is only for students who live on farms.

“There are so many leadership opportunities and other areas of content,” Bishop says. “If you look at my roster for FFA, probably only 20% of members are students who live on farms or ranches. I think that’s been a major help in trying to break that stigma of ‘it’s just for the farmers.’”

FFA Week (Feb. 22-29) activities help raise awareness of the district’s ag program. Members cook breakfast for teachers one day during the week, read books about agriculture to elementary students, and lead teambuilding activities for middle school students interested in learning more about FFA.

They also hold a food drive and recruit teachers willing to put their picture on a donation box. The teacher whose donation box has the most items then has to kiss an animal, like a sheep or pig. This year, the kiss may be scheduled for halftime during a basketball game.