Four years ago Georg Wardell showed up to Orem High School to find dead grass, pine trees and a greenhouse that was a wreck.
Today, there are plants popping up where the dead grass used to grow, basil fertilized by koi floats on foam in the greenhouse and a cluster of pumpkins are expected to be ready in time for Halloween. It’s taken a lot of work, but about 500 students — nearly a third of Orem High School’s study body — are now enrolled in an agriculture class.
“We are growing, and it speaks to the students’ want to know where their food comes from,” said Wardell, an agriculture teacher at the school and the advisor for its chapter of the National FFA Organization.
Succulents and daisies grow in the school’s greenhouse, tucked behind the football field. Outside, apricot and peach trees mature in a miniature orchard alongside grapes climbing up a chain link fence.
Despite shrinking farmland in Utah County, the agriculture classes are increasing in popularity at Orem High School. The school has added a second agriculture teacher to teach animal classes, and has added an aquaculture class after students expressed interest in the topic.
It’s a trend that is extending across Utah as the state has gained nine and a half new agriculture teaching positions in schools this year.
Orem High School offers agriculture classes such as plant science, animal science and flower design to students for science credit. Wardell said the classes teach principles such as chemistry and biology in a hands-on way.
“The applied method is different when you can touch it with your hands,” he said.
It’s that approach that attracted Morgan Williams, a senior, to the classes.
“I had so much fun in Mr. Wardell’s class that I’m now in three of them,” she said.
Williams didn’t know about agriculture before she started the classes, but took it because she needed science credit. Now, she loves it.
“I think it’s just how hands-on it is,” Williams said. “Every time you’re going to the greenhouse, you’re doing something.”
Chris Clements, a senior, first took an agriculture class because it looked like an interesting way to fulfill his science requirements. He became more involved, and became the reason the school has an aquaculture class.
It’s something he said many students don’t experience in an urban area.
“People don’t know how plants work,” he said.
It’s the first year the school has offered its animal classes.
“I feel like there was a desire for the animal side,” said Ashley Jensen, the school’s second agriculture teacher.
Jensen had previously taught in the Nebo School District and was nervous about how Orem students would embrace agriculture.
“These kids don’t see farms on their everyday drive,” she said.
She teaches her students about the science side of agriculture, and attributes the program’s success to Wardell.
“He has put a lot of work to make it different than other greenhouses,” Jensen said.
Wardell said he appreciates that there’s greenhouses across the Alpine School District.
“The support of the district is huge,” he said. “Every new school that opens, they have an ag program.”