Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources Commissioner Ashley Randle visits Smith Voc, meets with students 

Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources Commissioner Ashley Randle speaks with Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School Superintendent Andy Linkenhoker during a visit to the school on Wednesday, Dec. 13.

Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources Commissioner Ashley Randle speaks with Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School Superintendent Andy Linkenhoker during a visit to the school on Wednesday, Dec. 13. STAFF PHOTO/ALEXANDER MACDOUGALL

By ALEXANDER MACDOUGALL

Staff Writer

Published: 12-26-2023 10:52 AM

NORTHAMPTON – Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources Commissioner Ashley Randle returned to her native western Massachusetts and paid a recent visit to Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School, touring the school’s horticultural building and meeting with students in the Future Farmers of America program.

Randle, the first female MDAR commissioner and the first one in decades to hail from western part of the state, has deep ties to the school; her mother serves as an advisor for the school’s animal science program and several of her family members have attended classes there, according to Smith Voc Superintendent Andy Linkenhoker.

“It was great to have her on campus to discuss the current state of affairs across the commonwealth, what we’re trying to do with our animal science program and obviously trying to rebuild our horticulture program,” Linkenhoker said.

Smith Voc’s horticulture building was severely damaged in a May 2022 fire after a riding mower’s exhaust came into contact with combustible materials. The school elected to demolish what remained after the fire and build a new building. The part of the building that survived the fire is in use until the new building is completed.

Randle toured the school’s current horticulture building on Dec. 13, watching students make Christmas wreaths and visited the school’s greenhouse to see new heavy equipment simulators the school acquired via a Capital Skills Grant to help rebuild its horticulture program.

“In terms of industries in the state, the green industry is our largest, so horticulture and nurseries are incredibly important,” Randle said. “To be able to have the building and the infrastructure in place to make sure students have that experiential learning is critically important.”

The school has secured most of the necessary $6.7 million to build a new structure through insurance settlements, Capital Skills Grants from the state, and an amendment to the Massachusetts Economic Bond Bill by state Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton. Earlier this month, the school launched a campaign to raise the remaining $750,000 needed to move the project forward.

Another issue facing the school’s agricultural-related programs is the matter of students being able to work with hoisting equipment. For decades, students enrolled in Smith Voc’s horticultural program had been trained on using such equipment, such as skid-steers and excavators, to gain experience using the machines before officially obtaining their license and graduating into the workforce.

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But that all changed in January this year, when the school was told by the state’s Division of Occupational Licensure (DOL) that it had to cease letting most students use the equipment. In September, two Smith Voc students testified at the Massachusetts State House last week on a bill that would allow vocational school students to use hoisting equipment while still in school.

The bill, introduced by state Rep. Patricia Haddad, D-Somerset, would amend the state’s regulations to allow exemptions for vocational students, provided that an instructor with a proper hoisting license is on hand at all times.

During her visit to the school, Randle said that students having the ability to work with hoisting equipment was “the biggest concern” for agricultural programs.

“It’s something when they graduate, whether they go right into their career or they go on to help post-secondary, to have that hands-on training ensures they’re well prepared for success,” she said. “In terms of education, we do have the best educational system in the country. And to not be able to provide that opportunity for students with the hoisting experience is a disservice to them.”

Linkenhoker agreed that the hoisting equipment was the biggest issue for students looking to enter the agricultural industry.

“I felt positive feedback from Commissioner Randle and her staff,” he said. “They see the validity and the need for our students to have that exposure and that experience. It was nice to hear support at the state level there.”

Alexander MacDougall can be reached at amacdougall@gazettenet.com.