U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan says agriculture education is about the jobs of the future and not a backwards looking curriculum to preserve the past.

Over 50,000 students from the National FFA Organization—formerly Future Farmers of America—chapters around the country have been in Louisville this week for the annual conference taking place at the Kentucky Exposition Center.

“My message for you today is simple: Our nation needs your skills, your passion, your compassion and your talents to compete and prosper in a knowledge-based globally competitive economy,” Duncan said in opening remarks at Freedom Hall Friday.

Duncan grew up on the Southside of Chicago says he had a lot to learn about agriculture education. While he says there are challenges that exist for agriculture education (like the shortage of qualified teachers), he also recognizes its strengths.

Duncan pointed to Spencer County Schools where FFA high school students—250 strong—are taking classes in aquaculture and are studying greenhouse technology, greenhouse structures, and the environmental regulations that come with it.

(You can learn more about aquaculture here)

“FFA leaders at that chapter find ways to make agriculture education fun and relevant and engaging,” he says.

But more than 700 of the country’s 10,000 agriculture teachers are expected to retire over the next three years, according to the FFA’s National Teach Ag Campaign.

Further, in the next four to six years up to 1 million new teaching positions will become available as the baby-boomer generation starts to retire, says Duncan.

“If you want to make a difference in the lives of hundreds of children, if you want to increase social mobility, if you want to help people escape poverty, there’s no better place to do that than in the classroom,” he says.

Duncan also addressed the need to prepare students for college and career, which is a growing trend in most state’s public education systems, including Kentucky’s. He also said Congress needs to do a better job at compromising to support students and education.