GREENFIELD, Iowa – One by one, they stood up and told everyone inside the Adair County 4H/FFA Building what they had learned.
One loved the exotic cats. Another, giving a sheep an ultrasound. Yet another extolled the virtue of the Chicago Federal Reserve and holding $1 million at “the bank for banks,” and one more loved Kinze Manufacturing’s innovation center.
What was this? “What I Did on My Summer Vacation?”
No. It was a wrap-up meeting for SOFA XX – the 20th incarnation of a unique program that allows students from Adair, Cass and surrounding counties interested in careers in agriculture to experience potential career paths beyond traditional production.
SOFA – which stands for “Speak Out For Agriculture” – began in 1994 with a day-long trip to Des Moines to visit the Des Moines Register, Iowa Public Television and an ad agency. It has expanded into a program that has traversed the state of Iowa while also visiting Illinois, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska and South Dakota with stops at numerous ag-related businesses along the way.
For the 48 students involved in this year’s trip – a three-day visit to Chicago and the surrounding area – it was an experience that couldn't be duplicated. Each student pays $50, but around 75 percent of the program’s costs are paid by donations from a lengthy list of local and state-level sponsors.
“I’ve really enjoyed every trip we’ve been on and all of the workshops, stuff like that, and the best part’s been going again and again, how it changes and how you can learn more and more,” said Adair County native Merritt Caviness, a five-time SOFA participant who has already joined his family farm business after finishing his high school education.
“It’s always a different experience every time. It’s a diverse experience, and it’s really an amazing learning experience, and I have to thank the people involved for making that happen. It’s a really awesome program and I’m glad to be part of it.”
SOFA XX began with a visit to the Kinze Innovation Center in Williamsburg, where the group saw the latest in precision agriculture innovations in Kinze’s visitor center.
That was followed by a stop at a lock and dam on the Illinois River near Ottawa, Ill., where the group also received a visit from an ADM official who explained how grain is produced and exported through river channels from Illinois to China.
The group then traveled to Chicago, where they toured the Chicago Board of Trade and the Chicago Federal Reserve, observing how money affected futures trading.
SOFA participants also found time for a service trip to the McCormick Tribune YMCA, where they educated inner-city children on agriculture through games and presentations aimed at various age groups.
The following day, they visited Joliet Junior College and explored programs in animal science and horticulture before visiting a livestock operation and stopping at Grand Vale Farm outside Dunlap, Ill., home of agriculture photojournalist Erin Ehnle.
“What she does with her images and texts speaks to so many people,” said Adair County Extension agriculture programming coordinator Kathy Rohrig, who has been involved with SOFA since its inception. “For kids this age, how important it is to tell your story, to tell the story of agriculture and how important it is that we put correct information out there when we’re bombarded from so many areas with misinformation, and it’s so important to have people telling the story of agriculture.”
2014’s trip was the biggest and best for a program that began with a simple idea.
Twenty years ago, Adair County Extension director Deb Hall started the program along with her husband, Cass County Extension director Rich Hall, after seeing a need for greater agriculture-based education among local students.
Rohrig has been connected since 1994, first as a member of the planning committee while her daughter and son were involved, and then as a program advisor for the past 10 years.
Students are eligible to go on their first SOFA trip following their seventh grade year, and many continue with the program through high school graduation, going on as many as six trips and transitioning into leadership roles with the planning committee, maturing and growing their communication skills along the way.
“It’s pretty amazing to watch the transformation of kids, their first trip when they’ve just gotten out of seventh grade and how they stay with us through when they graduate from high school,” Rohrig said. “How accomplished they’ve become.”
Caviness embraced being a mentor for younger SOFA members, too.
“It’s always kind of cool to show them different things you can see at different workshops,” he said. “Everyone hears what the presenter says, but if you can throw in your two cents and help them learn something else, that’s rewarding. Being an older member, you can sometimes chime in with other information. Seeing people learn is always rewarding, and teachers get to experience that a lot.”
Michael Cooley openly admits that he got into SOFA “just for the bus ride and getting to go to a hotel with a pool.” But for the Orient native, son of a high school ag educator, it became so much more.
He joined the SOFA planning committee and helped plan trips, finding group rates at hotels along the way and maximizing the experiences possible for a short bus trip to places like Kansas City and South Dakota, seeing television stations and beef genetic facilities and making academic visits to Iowa State University, Kirkwood Community College and South Dakota State University.
“I was able to see the agricultural field even if I didn’t want to be involved in a traditional sense with production,’ he said. “There were a lot of careers that sparked my interest and caught my eye.”
Something clearly sunk in: Cooley attended Iowa State and is now Greene County Extension coordinator.
“(SOFA) helped me know that even if I wasn’t completely an ag broadcaster, I could still promote the message of agriculture in marketing and communications,” he said.
For volunteer Beth Baudler, SOFA is “very near and dear to my heart.”
Growing up north of Fontanelle, Baudler was a late-comer to the 4-H program and experienced her first SOFA trip following her eighth grade year. She said working on the planning committee “really expanded my skill set” and played a big role in her future.
“Just the great opportunities being part of the planning committee, communication, leadership and meeting so many people really impacted my decision to go to Iowa State,” she said.
Baudler, a 2011 Iowa State graduate in animal science, now lives on her grandparents’ old farm north of Fontanelle working for Iowa Gold, a company that works with ethanol products and cattle nutrition, while also raising animals on the farm.
SOFA, Baudler said, let her know about all the avenues an agriculture career could provide.
“I think that’s what’s really neat about the SOFA program,” she said. “We look at food science, horticulture, the communication side of ag, all those different things that are part of agriculture, but we might not think of. It’s just really cool to see all the jobs for those kids.”
SOFA has been around long enough to produce a second generation. Several participants now have children in the program, and others, like Baudler and Cooley, serve as advisors and/or chaperones.
“It was fun,” Cooley said. “It brought back a lot of memories. Not a lot had changed. It was great to see some of the high school kids be leaders and role models for younger students who asked questions after each stop.
“It was fun to see kids just as interested as I was, asking questions and really paying attention well. From the adult side, it was great to see a lot of well-behaved participants. We received a lot of compliments from the people in Chicago.”
The returnees’ actions show how much SOFA has truly impacted its participants.
“I think it speaks to the integrity and the quality of the program that they will give back and they generously give back to their time,” Rohrig said. “They know personally what it meant to them and how it impacted their life, and maybe changed some direction of their life and what they wanted to do or pursue, so I think that’s why SOFA graduates or alumni continue to give back in different ways.”
At the same time, they’re shaping the next generation of agriculture – right before their eyes.
“I got to be roommates with seven girls at a hostel in Chicago,” Baudler said. “Their stories about agriculture – the future is so bright, with all these passionate people. I think that’s what’s neat about this SOFA program. It’s giving them a chance to truly speak out for agriculture and share their stories in the program.”
PHOTO: SOFA XX group poses in front of a sculpture at Chicago's Millenium Park during its recent visit.