Tuesday, September 25, 2007

FFA on the Rebound, but 'It's Not Your Father's Ag-Ed Program Anymore'

Agricultural education is becoming a key factor in the success of Iowa students getting prepared to enter the work force.

The skills sought by employers in Iowa are changing rapidly as new job opportunities sprout up with the growing renewable fuels industry. And as those new opportunities arise, students in Iowa's schools are showing a growing interest in the study of agriculture.
One time-honored agricultural education program, Future Farmers of America, had seen its membership in Iowa drop to nearly 10,000 in the year 2000. But FFA has enjoyed somewhat of a rebirth around the state with more than 12,300 members this fall.

Iowa FFA Advisor Dale Gruis told Iowa Independent that it's a myth that kids aren't interested in agriculture. "The common belief among a lot of people is that these programs are kind of drying up. Which is not true," said Gruis. "While we may lose a chapter now and then because of school mergers, we also will see every now and then a new school that adds a program."
Gruis said that in order for FFA to remain a vital part of agricultural education, it must adapt to teach kids the skills they need in today's agriculture. "It's not your father's ag-ed program anymore," said Gruis. "The programs have changed over time. Programs may not be exactly how parents remember them from years ago. There's a lot more emphasis now on horticulture, biotechnology, science, all those things that are growing areas in agriculture today."

Gruis said kids are interested in the high-tech skills needed by agribusiness, but they're also very interested in learning about growing and marketing foods on a small-scale, local level. "And we know that there's probably a pretty significant number of FFA students that currently sell produce through farmers markets as an FFA project. There's a growing interest with students in the trend of trying to sell through farmers' markets. That's been an exciting trend, because I think most of us support the local foods initiatives."
While agricultural education programs are mostly located in small-town high schools, Gruis said that students in urban schools are now showing a lot of interest in horticulture and local food projects.

But it's large-scale production agriculture that has created the most demand for highly skilled young adults. Preparing kids to enter into agronomy or biology programs in college is going to be a key focus of agricultural education programs in Iowa high schools.
"Agriculture education is more important now than it ever has been," said Gruis. "The growing biofuels industry in Iowa, the whole desire to see Iowa grow in producing more biofuels -- it's definitely an area that makes sense to try and get more students involved in understanding agriculture. Especially the aspects of biology and the marketing of agricultural products."

"I spend a fair amount of my time talking to business and industry people, and they continually talk about the need for students that are interested in agriculture," said Gruis. "Iowa probably has a shrinking student population, especially the number of students that grow up on farms. But the demand for those students is growing."

A recent article in Iowa Farmer Today reported that there is an incredible demand for highly educated agronomists in Iowa and the rest of the Midwest. The article states that some agronomists with advanced degrees from Iowa State University are getting paid $80,000 or more as a starting salary.

Iowa FFA Foundation President Steve DeWitt told Iowa Independent that the jobs are here for students willing to learn the skills that are required.
"Production agriculture is of paramount importance to the economy of Iowa. And agriculture has huge demands right now for employees," said DeWitt. "Agribusiness represents more than 25 percent of all employment in the state of Iowa, so it's a significant contributor to our overall workforce. The needs of agribusiness are greater than they've ever been."
"Renewable fuels and all of the manufacturing facilities that are being built, they have great needs for employees with special training. A lot of the schools, Iowa community colleges, have started new programs to help educate new potential employees for those facilities."

One planned project that is on the drawing board may soon help educate Iowa's youth about agriculture. The Iowa FFA Enrichment Center is a multimillion-dollar learning institution that will be constructed near the Des Moines Area Community College campus in Ankeny.
The project, funded by the FFA Foundation, will be more than 75,000 square feet in size and will serve students and teachers in Iowa's agricultural education programs.

"The enrichment center is really devoted to helping students involved in FFA throughout Iowa take advantage of some new educational opportunities," said DeWitt. "It will be devoted to helping students and teachers become more proficient in the skills and opportunities in agribusiness today." Once completed, the Enrichment Center will feature greenhouses, computer and science labs and classrooms for special educational programs.

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