Agriculture education plants seeds for future of industry

By Josette Keelor

STEPHENS CITY — The National FFA Organization teaches a lot more than farming. That’s why area agriscience teachers said the organization plucked “farmers” from its name a long time ago.

Previously called the Future Farmers of America, the 610,240-member organization has grown to offer a more comprehensive agricultural experience for students. Founded 86 years ago, the organization officially changed its name in 1988.

The change was necessary, said Aylor Middle School agriscience teacher Kim Black.

“We wouldn’t be here if we didn’t change,” she said. “You used to have to have livestock just to be in the program.”

When Central High School teacher Sherry Heishman started teaching in the mid-1980s, many of her students lived on farms.

“You were teaching kids to be farmers,” she said. “You were teaching kids to grow whatever, and that’s not what we’re doing now.”

Today, she said, “There are a lot more opportunities. … And you don’t have to be a farmer to benefit from what we teach.”

Deeply rooted in the educational system in Frederick and Shenandoah counties, FFA formed locally from school agricultural departments. Though organizations like 4-H are community based, there can be no FFA without a school agriculture department. Students studying agriculture-based courses are welcome but not required to join their school’s FFA club.

Reliant on donations, FFA allows students greater access to school facilities such as greenhouses, raised garden beds and metal or wood shops.

But an agriculture department requires school and state funding, said Jaclyn Roller Ryan, agriscience teacher at Signal Knob Middle School in Strasburg, and a lack of funding can prevent a school district from being able to offer an FFA program.

“It’s easier if you’re building a brand new school and you can advocate to the community,” said Ryan, recently named Virginia Teacher of the Year. But building an agriculture program in a district with several established schools is tougher, she said.

“That might be why some places shy away from it,” Ryan said. “We’re very fortunate around here that we have great support and we don’t have to fight as hard.”

Schools sometimes start small — offering a class here or there using donated equipment — and although FFA requires membership dues, Ryan has found community sponsorship for students who can’t afford the money.

According to Ryan, the cost of not having an agriculture department is far greater.

“We have more opportunities in our program to teach students life skills,” she said. These are often skills students don’t learn at home, so “it’s extremely important.”

Of Signal Knob’s 498 total student body, 250 are in the agriculture program, and Ryan expects more than 300 by next semester. The school’s FFA program has about 100 members, including those who only have a spring agriculture class.

“They keep joining,” she said. “I mean, I can’t keep up with the roster.”

In Shenandoah County, each school’s department is independent from those of other schools. Heishman has taught veterinary science classes since 2005. Strasburg High School added its veterinary science program the following year and Stonewall Jackson High School in Quicksburg a couple years later.

“We all try to stay in those career pathways, which are animal science, plant science, mechanics,” Heishman said. “We try to get a little bit of everything.”

Frederick County’s program is the same in all its middle and high schools and includes areas of study like metal fabrications, fisheries and wildlife management, landscaping, floral design, greenhouse production and even leadership, said Sherando agriscience teacher Liz Borst.

“That’s what it’s become now to kind of meet the needs of industry,” she said. This year, the district added veterinary science to its high school programs, building on the middle schools’ small animal care program.

Also a “big plus” for students, Frederick schools offer cooperative education classes and dual enrollment courses with Lord Fairfax Community College, Black said.

“We are really about agriculture literacy,” she said.

And the program becomes more relevant each year. Nationwide, schools have been pushing science, technology, engineering and math education in an attempt to keep up with the level of education other nations offer, but, according to Black, “We’ve been doing that for years and years.”

Countywide, agriculture classes enroll 2,203 students. Of those students, 448 are FFA members. Nationwide, she said, FFA membership is “the highest it’s ever been.”

FFA activities include monthly meetings, fundraisers, community service projects, state and national conventions and retreats. FFA is “a very, very busy program,” Black said.

Elementary schools aren’t really involved, but that doesn’t stop the higher grades from planting the seed of interest by talking with students about what to expect beginning in sixth grade.

“It’s not about the farmer anymore, it’s about the industry,” Black said. “Two percent of our kids maybe live on a farm.”

“But the industry of agriculture is something like 20 percent,” she said.

Borst agreed: “We encourage them to join FFA ’cause it’s not the Future Farmers of America anymore, and the reason is because it encompasses so much more.”

Contact staff writer Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137, ext. 176, or jkeelor@nvdaily.com