There are about 1,400 students in the Montrose High School. About 75 of those are enrolled in Brett Saunders' agriculture curriculum.
“These are not kids from farms,” says Saunders. “They are youngsters who want to learn about farming and ranching and get the hands on schooling in all aspects of it.”
He says that the youngsters who are already in the ag business tend to stay on the farm and then go to college. Some come back to the farm and some don’t.
A lot of the students from the farms already have a lot of shop experience and other skills because they have lived farming or ranching for their whole lives. The program that Saunders offers is a broad agriculture science education. He says he includes all aspects of the ag industry.
“We do animal science, business, research, shop skills, food farming,” he says. The program prepares the students for the next step, which is not necessarily farming or ranching.
“A lot of them will go on to college and study everything from farming to research on animal or plant genetics,” says Saunders.
Saunders has been teaching kids about the ag business for 25 years and at the end of this semester the 52-year-old will call it quits. Saunders says he will probably stay around farming, perhaps in a management or consultative role.
The affable Mr. Saunders, as the students know him, is a genuine Montrose native. He graduated from the same high school where he has taught for a quarter century.
“My great-grandfather was a dry land potato farmer in the South end of the valley. He left that and moved to San Diego County in California. He lasted a year in California, he said it was not for him,” Saunders says. So it was back to Colorado and the Uncompahgre River Valley. The Saunders homestead is on the mesa south of the valley.
Saunders graduated from Montrose High School in 1986. And then?
“Well, if anyone asked me what I wanted to do after high school, I said that I wanted to be a sheep rancher,” Saunders says.
Saunders recalls too many obstacles to that path.
“Land was scarce then and there wasn’t much for a first time farmer to do without a lot of money.”
Saunders said that he started his post high school life by going to a community college and getting an AA degree in agriculture production. He settled on teaching and he cobbled together his teaching degree and credentials by 1995, just in time for the retirement of Dean Soderquist, who had headed the Montrose ag school for many years.
“Dean called me up and said he was going to retire and that I ought to apply for the job,” Saunders says. He said there were a couple of other applicants but he got the job. And the rest, as they say, is history.
The “Ag Shop” is located on the West side of the school with the entrance off South Rio Grande Avenue. The shop shares the building with the Auto Mechanics skills school. Saunders says the building they are in was about 10 years old when he moved in a quarter century ago.
The program is home to the Montrose Chapter of the Future Farmers of America.
“We are one of the few chapters that did not adopt the national change which removed the word farmers from the name,” Saunders says. Although the thrust of the program is not necessarily aimed at producing future farmers, the chapter members voted to stay with tradition. It is true that overall few who graduate high school ag programs actually go into farming.
In fact, Ashley Medina, a senior in the program has been studying animal science. She happily showed us a project that she and some others were working on. They had acquired fertilized chicken and duck eggs and have been incubating them. They began to hatch on Tuesday. So is Ashley going to be a chicken farmer?
“No, I am going to start at Colorado Mesa University here in Montrose and study for a criminal science degree,” she says. She is not sure what branch of criminal science she wants to take, but she says that she might even become a police officer.
About a third of Saunders’ students are girls, some of whom take the science path like Ashley. Others like Kassidy Brady, a sophomore, who lives on a farm, is learning welding. She is going back to the farm after college and she wants to be able to fix things.
Saunders says his tenure at Montrose High has been a good one, and enjoyable, but he is ready to do some other things.
“The job of teaching has changed. The hours are long now, there are hours and hours of paperwork and the changes in regulations make it very stressful,” he says.
So, even though he loves working with the kids, Mr. Saunders will lock up the shop on the last day of school.
Editor's Note: The online version of this story has been changed to correct the names of Bridger Wilson in a photo caption and Kassidy Brady in the story.