LEXINGTON, Ky. (Oct. 24, 2023) — Gage Tucker grew up in the imposing shadow of the Daniel Boone National Forest. A self-described shy kid, he would routinely sit in the back of his Monticello, Kentucky, classrooms, hoping the teachers would overlook him. More often than not, they did. It’s not that he lacked the correct responses to the teachers’ questions; he simply dreaded being called upon in class.
All that changed during Tucker's first year of high school.
“My ag teacher was instrumental in my life,” Tucker reflects on his metamorphosis with the help of Justin Horton, the agriculture teacher at Wayne County High School, about 20 miles north of the Kentucky-Tennessee border. “He pushed me. I was taking all these really difficult classes, and he noticed that while I was excelling in coursework, I wasn’t excelling in anything social — that I wasn’t talking to people throughout the day at school. He pushed me out of my comfort zone to take on new opportunities, to try something new. It was challenging, especially as a freshman in high school. It was a life-altering experience.”
Now a thriving junior in the University of Kentucky Martin-Gatton College of Agriculture, Food and Environment, Tucker plans to follow in his mentor’s footsteps by working toward a degree in agricultural education with minors in animal sciences and agricultural economics. His goal is to pass on his love of the land to future generations of students and inspire them to understand the importance of agriculture.
Tucker discovered the study of agriculture by happenstance. He was searching for an elective to complete his schedule. He grew up on a parcel of land near the South Fork of the Cumberland River that had once been his great grandparents’ tobacco farm. While his parents enjoyed cultivating the soil, farming was merely a hobby, not a career.
“We never sell anything that we produce or anything like that,” Tucker explained. “We produce a lot for ourselves, and it’s my parents’ favorite thing — it’s their pastime, what they’re very passionate about — so they grow a lot for us, and then we give away a lot of the crops to friends and neighbors.”
Still, the family’s agrarian avocation led Tucker to develop a nascent interest in plants.
He worked hard during his four years at Wayne County High, even amid a global pandemic. In addition to his coursework, he became active in the National FFA Organization (formerly known as the Future Farmers of America) — a group that focuses on agriculture, leadership and service.
“One thing I’ll always remember about Gage is that he was like a sponge,” laughs Horton. “Anything I taught or said, he soaked it in and absorbed it. It took some persuading to get him to agree to attend a week at the FFA Leadership Training Center, but from there, Gage went from a student sitting in the back of the classroom to WCHS salutatorian from his graduating class.”
Tucker traveled with Horton and other FFA students to conventions in Indianapolis, Lexington and Louisville, toured farming operations across Kentucky and attended as many conferences as possible. As part of his required FFA project, Tucker realized he wanted to sow his love of plants in his community.
“My project outside was focused on teaching basic ag lessons to elementary students. We have an after-school program where I would create a lesson and go once a month and teach it to a group of six or seven third- and fourth-graders,” Tucker said. “Their minds would be blown by the time they left the after-school program or the summer camp — that they could learn something new in such a fun way. That’s where I first discovered my passion for sharing the story of agriculture with others.”
Tucker was cognizant that he was doing well in high school — he conservatively estimated in the top 5% — but it was not confirmed to him until about a week before graduation, during the middle of his chapter’s FFA banquet, when his principal told him that he ranked second in his class of 175 and would be the school’s salutatorian.
Upon graduation from high school — with his high GPA and impressive list of agricultural extracurricular achievements — Tucker could have readily been accepted at any agriculture program in the country. He decided to stay close to home, near his family, dramatically cutting the list of potential schools to the handful of in-state colleges offering a four-year agriculture education major. But in the end, UK was his first and only choice.
“I realized there were a whole lot more opportunities here in Lexington with the faculty — that I’d be able to learn things from the other connections I make,” said Tucker, who is also a first-generation college student. “It was a better choice to come here, being the land-grant university. I feel like I’m a more well-rounded student because of my decision to come to UK over one of the other schools in the state.”
Tucker says that UK is the ideal place to spread his wings, primarily because of the tremendous opportunities available through the agricultural education program at the Martin-Gatton College and the options for developing leadership qualities. In particular, the unique curriculum allows students to experience a breadth of agricultural knowledge to apply to their future teaching.
“We’ve got our ag ed classes, but we’re constantly taking classes in animal sciences, plant and soil sciences, horticulture, ag economics, ag engineering and rural sociology,” Gage explains. “I think I’ve taken a class in almost 75% of the departments in the Martin-Gatton College, which isn’t something that most students do in a college experience. I feel like most of their classes are in one focus area while ours gives us a little taste of everything and helps us with the content we will teach in our classrooms."
Tucker says that the department has strengthened his leadership qualities, and he sees the department as a catalyst for developing the leaders of tomorrow from the college’s diverse, community-oriented student population — a sentiment echoed by R. Wes Harrison, chair of the college’s Department of Community and Leadership Development.
“Our agricultural education students are unique because they are passionate about agricultural sciences and educating youth and the public about the importance of farming and the food system in our lives,” Harrison said. “I should also note that agricultural education goes well beyond classroom learning and includes professional development through experiential learning, service and leadership programs offered through FFA and 4-H organizations. Many of our agricultural education students serve as officers within these organizations and, as a result, develop valuable leadership skills.”
Tucker has received numerous awards and scholarships at UK, including the Dr. Jo Ann S. Hilliker Scholarship and the prestigious Gatton Scholarship, named after the late Bill Gatton, the UK alumnus whose foundation recently pledged $100 million to the College of Agriculture, Food and Environment.
Of the Gatton Scholarship, Tucker is particularly proud to have it as part of his pedigree.
“I think it’s really unique, and I’m glad they saw what I’m capable of — to be one of the selected scholarship recipients … it’s part of his legacy,” he said. “I’m very grateful our college is getting that recognition and we’ve got an identifiable name now, and that we have those funds for scholarships and other things.”
At UK, Tucker has somehow managed to shoehorn 25 hours into a single day. Beyond his coursework, he serves as a peer mentor in the Living Learning Program, president of the college’s Ag Education Society and pledge trainer for Block and Bridle, the undergraduate animal sciences club. He is involved with Collegiate Farm Bureau and even maintains a part-time student assistant position with the Department of Community and Leadership Development, where he gets to work alongside and learn from agriculture and sociology faculty and others researching social issues in rural and agricultural areas, which allowed him to work in an undergraduate research project.
Never one to miss an opportunity to keep his schedule full, this past summer, Tucker worked as a program assistant for Wayne County’s Cooperative Extension Service office (which operates under the auspices of UK’s Martin-Gatton College), served as a counselor on campus for the Institute for Future Ag Educators (co-hosted by the Martin-Gatton College and Kentucky Farm Bureau) and interned at the Kentucky FFA Association’s state convention where he managed more than three dozen contests for 300 high schoolers over four days.
Now, the junior has his sights firmly set on a career in teaching agriculture to high school students, and the career prospects for agriculture educators are rife with possibility. A study led by the National Association of Agricultural Educators suggests that an annual shortage of between 200 and 400 agriculture teachers impacts tens of thousands of students nationwide. Moreover, the U.S. Department of Education reports that there has been an acute need for qualified agriculture teachers in more than 20 states for the past quarter century.
If Horton has his way, his protégé will return to his old stomping ground and join him in teaching the evolving and increasingly important subject of agriculture.
“Based on his continued involvement with my students by conducting leadership workshops, Gage will make an excellent teacher,” Horton said proudly. “I’d love the opportunity to add a teaching position at our school and to work with him.”
It is an enticing prospect that appeals to Tucker — at least for a while.
“What I’d like to do is to be able to return home to be an ag teacher,” Tucker said. “I want to teach, and I plan on doing that for a while, but I’m always looking to grow. So, I’ve already thought of what I might want to do after, say, seven or eight years of teaching in a classroom. What might the next step be for me?"
For someone so focused on the earth, the sky’s the limit.
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