Agriculture needs all kinds
by Julie Krull Larson
The author is senior sales development manager for Merial and based in Viroqua, Wis.
With the global population expected to explode in the next 35-plus years, agriculture will be one of the most exciting and sought-after career fields. Think about it, any career in agriculture, with farming as the backbone, will impact food production. And who better to take on this important task than students who have been enrolled in agriculture education and FFA.
These programs have the unique three-way triangle offering of classroom curriculum, the SAE (Supervised Agricultural Experience) and FFA. The SAE is a focused project where students gain hands-on experience both in entrepreneurship and placement areas. SAEs may be a passion a student wishes to adventure into, or it may be unchartered waters they wish to explore. FFA is the premier leadership arm of the triangle. Countless students and alumni credit FFA with the leadership skills they utilize daily.
An avenue for all
Agriculture education is for students with farm and nonfarm backgrounds. In fact, if we as an industry don't encourage nonfarm students to pursue agriculture careers, the shortage of students needed to fill those jobs will no doubt grow from its current deficit of 10 percent.
Regardless of a student's background, an agricultural career starts at home with parents and can be encouraged by the mentors in students' lives. "Parents who counsel their children to pursue agriculture often end up in agriculture majors and careers," says Lloyd Hardy, agriculture education teacher at Viroqua High School, Viroqua, Wis. "If they have a farm background, they have a competitive advantage, but we need those who don't, too."
The program's hands-on approach and educational value are a magnet to all students. Laura Moser, with Farmer, Lumpe, and McClelland Advertising Agency and past Wisconsin State FFA officer, agrees. "When I visit with high school students seeking advice on college or career goals, I always encourage them to look toward agriculture. I stress that nearly any profession they are exploring can be tied to agriculture. When they do so, they create a niche for themselves that sets them apart in the job market," says Moser.
Agricultural education also attracts some of the brightest students. The state of Wisconsin has numerous schools where agriculture education/FFA participants have been the school's valedictorians, salutatorians or in the top 10 percent of the graduating class. One of those is Viroqua High School.
The Class of 2010's Valedictorian Katie Wendorf, who graduated in May from Harvard University with a bachelor's degree in chemistry, was one of those students. She attributes her success in school to being an active member of her FFA chapter.
"Ag education and FFA have helped me explore my interests," says Wendorf. "It has been very integrative, offering opportunities to participate in dairy activities but also to learn more about other fields of agriculture that I was not familiar with. I also think that the academic component to ag education, which I didn't really get from my experience on the farm or in other organizations like 4-H, may have played a role in my interest in studying life sciences," she adds.
Employers notice FFA
Viroqua High School's Class of 2012 Salutatorian Thomas Larson credits his SAE in ag mechanics for ultimately guiding his college major and future career choice. Larson is a junior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison majoring in biological systems engineering. It was his agriculture education/FFA background that helped him land an internship at Kuhn North America during the summer of 2013.
"At Kuhn North America, we look for students with agriculture education/FFA backgrounds for our internship and experimental programs," says Jill Leitzen, director of human resources for the company. "These students, who have already established a solid foundation in leadership, technical and communication skills, are a step ahead of the rest and rise to the top in our competitive selection process. These students are then able to hone the skills learned through ag ed and FFA during their internship. The result? A well-prepared young professional ready to contribute their valuable skill set at their first job upon college graduation."
Beyond internships, employers, too, notice when job applicants have an FFA background. "When we are hiring for a position, any candidate who has FFA on their résumé stands out," says Steven Van Lannen, executive vice president with American Foods Group, LLC. "When I make a phone call to an applicant who is a former FFA member, I know that individual will demonstrate a certain level of leadership above a typical job applicant. These leadership skills are just as important as a person's technical skill set."
This track record of attracting high-achieving students isn't isolated to one school, though. Cochrane Fountain City (CFC) High School in Cochrane, Wis., has the same results; however, on a broader scale. Chris Jumbeck, a 26-year teacher at the school, reports that 19 out of the last 26 years valedictorian and/or salutatorian honors have gone to agriculture education/FFA students. There are a number of other agriculture education programs that also boast this same type of track record. Agricultural education is for everyone. It attracts both the brightest students around the U.S. and those students where hands-on learning is a necessity.
As a former student of Jumbecks, Kelsey Murphy-Kaufman, Class of 2003 Salutatorian and a past Wisconsin State FFA Officer, shares, "Hands down, no other class prepared me for life after high school better than my agriculture classes. I didn't realize it at the time, but Ms. Jumbeck was teaching us acceptance, as well. Everyone was accepted in ag class. It didn't matter if you were at the top of your class or not; there was something for everyone.
"The hands-on learning is desirable for all students. Students with additional or special needs also find opportunities. I still remember the joy on a student's face, who was born with Down's Syndrome, in horticulture class. She loved being in the greenhouse and planting her own things. Agriculture education taught her that she was capable of gardening for herself," Murphy-Kaufman adds.
FFA involvement can definitely provide students with an "edge" over others. Most students understand what it means to work hard, and they aren't afraid of it either. In today's work world versus years' past, students who are willing to do extra will differentiate themselves from others in their generation. Those students will be looked at first for promotions and extra responsibilities to further their skill set.
"I believe that students who have grown up around agriculture, either on a farm or working in the field, seem to grow up a little quicker and can focus on their future," says Hardy. "Agricultural students today are exposed to a rapidly changing industry both in technology and equipment."
The agriculture industry and agriculture education should be a magnet to all types of students. Agriculture education and FFA are programs that educate students who will be at the forefront of feeding the world. It is an exciting time for those who work in agriculture today and those who plan to in the future.