For 38 years, Cornelius Joe spent weekdays molding students’ minds with educational mainstays like welding, woodwork, engineering and agriculture. Today, the 62-year-old agriscience education retiree is working to keep those skills alive in west Alabama schools.
“We need to make sure agriculture survives,” said Joe, who also raises Black Angus cattle on his family homestead outside Greensboro in Hale County. “Some people in leadership don’t understand the lessons children learn through agribusiness.”
When Joe was in the ninth grade, agriscience teacher W.W. McCurdy convinced him to stay rooted in agriculture by attending Alabama A&M University in Huntsville, a land-grant institution.
“At the time, it was important to go off to school and get the education I needed,” said Joe, the eighth of 10 children. “I had no intention of doing farm work because it didn’t pay too well.”
Joe taught in Hale and Tuscaloosa County high schools and at Shelton State Community College, where students referred to him as Mr. Joe — and still do when they run into him in town.
These days, he stays busy on his 200-acre farm, which he calls a one-man operation, except when his son, Christopher, helps haul hay.
Off the farm, Joe is securing funding to implement agriscience education labs in four west Alabama schools. The labs will equip students with the passion to pursue agricultural careers, whether on a farm, selling chemicals, becoming a veterinarian or dealing with machinery. Though Greensboro is a rural community, students aren’t always connected to the farms surrounding them.
“I want to simulate farms and farm life,” Joe said. “If students aren’t exposed to agriculture, they don’t go that way. But they still need higher education to get a good-paying job.”
By starting robotics programs in middle schools, Joe hopes to show students at a young age that agriculture can be profitable and fun. Mix in growing technologies like wind and solar power, classic agriscience programs and summer farm co-ops, and Joe believes students will latch onto agriculture and attend land-grant universities — just like he did.
“It’s not just theory,” Joe said. “It’s followed up with hands-on activities. We’ll teach a kid that he can succeed.”
Joe and wife Leola have four children, including Christopher, who works for the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). Joe has participated in several NRCS programs through the years, such as the Conservation Stewardship Program, with the goal of improving his property and implementing sustainable farm practices.
“Different people doing different things makes ag go around,” Joe said. “You probably won’t get rich at any of it, but this really works well for me.”