MISSOULA, Mont. - Agriculture is essential to Montana's economy and the industry's future is up in the air.
But on Missoula County Public School's 100 acres of land, students like Big Sky High School Senior, Colter McWilliams, are learning skills they can use anywhere.
“It’s really taught me to work hard and to value my work and it really feels good to have someone rely on you to get things done," McWilliams said.
He's one of 300 students in the Agriculture Program.
Ag teacher, Tom Andres has been a part of the program for years.
“We try to create a student that has job-ready skills when they leave our program in agriculture which is Montana’s number one industry, so those are valuable skills to have," Andres said.
Those skills include everything from construction, handling the animals, and even a little veterinary work, but Andres said it's what they learn beyond raising livestock that makes these kids stand out.
“You hear all the time ‘If you want to hire a good worker, hire a farm kid,' and I believe that’s true. Out here, we can teach kids responsibility, we teach ‘em how to work hard, that it’s okay to sweat, it’s okay to get a blister on your hand every now and then, it's okay to get a little poop on your shoes," Andres said.
That hard work starts on day one. Most of the animals are owned by the students. They're responsible for raising them both physically and financially, with hopes that their hard work pays off.
"But then they keep the profits when they sell their animal at the fair, or if they sell off a litter of pigs, or something like that," Andres said.
The program has been around for over 100 years and it's proven to be successful, not just for the family farm, but to help young men and women get through college.
“A student, if they’re ambitious and they’re a pretty good farmer and a good business person, they can, in the four years of high school, they can make enough money usually to pay for their first year of college," Andres said.
Andres has even helped McWilliams with his future career.
“Mr. Andres helped me to get this scholarship at Northwest down in Powell Wyoming, so that’s kind of what opened it up. But up until that point, I really had no plans or intentions of going to college after high school,” McWilliams said.
Ag teacher, Cindy Arnott said it's more than just farming.
“Our animals and our crops, our greenhouse and our mechanics shop, those are all just vehicles for us to use to help students learn skills they’re gonna need, no matter what they do once they leave here," Arnott said.
While the students may come and go, the impacts they're having on Montana's #1 industry can be felt all across the state as they strive to keep the family farm not just up and running, but thriving.
“Working in the farming industry is definitely something I’d recommend to anyone and everyone to do. It just teaches you so much and opens your eyes to a whole new perspective of how things are done," McWilliams said.
With tears in her eyes, Arnott said her students are her world.
“You just get to see the people that they’re gonna be. I’m gonna cry. You get to see the people that your students are gonna grow up to be. These are young men and you can tell that they’re gonna continue to be incredible adults," Arnott said.