AMES, Iowa – Like many good ideas, AgSploration started with the simple need to fill a void.
Neighboring northwest Iowa school districts Cherokee and Marcus-Meriden-Cleghorn-Remsen-Union, known as MMC-RU, are located in the heart of Iowa’s thriving farm country. But five years ago neither school offered an agricultural education program, or any way for students to potentially pursue their passions in a structured fashion.
A pair of educators stepped in to change that – and the results have been amazing. What began as a series of agriculture-related field trips has turned into a concerted effort to push students into agriculture careers at Iowa State University and elsewhere.
Making it happen
ISU Extension and Outreach Cherokee County program coordinator Mary Tuttle and former MMC-RU counselor Renea Ogren knew something needed to happen.
“Mary and I are both counselors, and we looked at both of our careers to see how we could offer courses for students that would be interested in ag careers. We came up with the curriculum to give kids a taste of what going into agriculture would be like,” Ogren said.
Together, Ogren and Tuttle worked to give students at MMC-RU and Cherokee Washington High School some valuable exposure to agriculture. Ogren met with MMC-RU students prior to the school day, while Tuttle did the same in Cherokee after school. They dug into multiple aspects of agriculture and production, including tours at Iowa State University, the National Pork Congress, the biannual Farm Progress Show, ISU’s Northwest Research and Demonstration Farm and multiple farm equipment companies.
“We were jumping on any opportunity that we could and used a lot of resources,” Ogren said. “Our first year we used a lot of extension specialists, which was very helpful, and funneled kids into the ag-related areas they really liked as possible careers.”
The program also gave students who were already interested in agriculture opportunities to broaden their horizons within the field.
“We had a lot of kids from farms that have crop production, cattle and hogs,” Tuttle said. “One was very interested in horticulture and we saw an organic farm, which piqued their interest, along with watersheds and water quality. We tried to get more than crop production and livestock production. A John Deere dealer that needed mechanics. It was all things ag-related.”
Even exploring drones and their use in farm technology was part of the mix.
“That was cutting-edge,” Ogren said. “We saw the first drone that was purchased for the (Northwest) Research Farm, and our students got to see it. It was pretty exciting for them.”
Building buzz for ag education
The program grew from approximately 45 students between the two schools in its first year to approximately 100 in its fourth year. AgSploration built a base as well as a demand for agricultural education in northwest Iowa.
Tuttle said that after they “caused more noise,” the communities and parents took notice.
“The communities got behind us,” she said. “They were seeing, ‘There is an interest here.’ We were vocal, went to the schools and said the kids needed this, and kind of pushed and said the schools needed to fund the teachers.”
The two put together surveys and need assessments, which showed an “overwhelming” demand for agricultural education.
“Both schools wanted an ag program,” Tuttle said. “More than what we were offering. It was so great to get support when people saw what we were doing.”
For Ogren, it was an impressive reversal.
“We were told there was no funding, we can’t afford another teacher, and it looked at times like a dead end,” she said. “Then all of a sudden we hear they’re hiring an ag teacher, and it was elation.”
A perfect opportunity
Hannah Barnes had just moved to Cherokee County with her husband, who farms in the area. She has a degree from Iowa State in agricultural education and spent her first year out of college traveling before settling into a routine of substitute teaching at Washington High School.
“I mentioned in passing (to school administrators) that I was ag certified and they were really surprised,” she said. “My gosh, we have been talking about starting an ag program.”
A group of parents went to the school board and advocated for the program, citing Barnes’ presence and expected ongoing ties to the community. In short order, she was hired and three classes (introduction to agriculture, animal sciences and natural resources and ecology) were placed on the curriculum, with 15 students signing up.
“They were excited to have me, the students were excited, everything fell into place,” Barnes said. “Nothing was really planned (that way). It kind of happened on a whim.”
Sam Green’s story was similar. She graduated from Iowa State with a master’s in agricultural education in May 2016 and was student teaching at Unity Christian in Orange City, when a family friend made a connection. MMC-RU was starting an agricultural education program, and she would be an excellent fit.
“Long story short, it was perfect timing-wise. I was graduating right as they were getting started,” Green said.
It was a natural for MMC-RU, a school populated by students whose parents have ties to agriculture or are surrounded by ag production or ag transportation themselves.
“My first thought was why don’t they have an ag program in such a central location,” she said. “It was shocking to think they’d never done it. They were deciding whether to have it, and I listened and gave my two cents about the need to have an ag program.”
A great start and great potential
A clean slate was positive, too.
“It was fun to explain the ag program and it was easier for me not following someone else’s traditions, and starting my own traditions based on what kids want,” Green said. “It was challenging because people didn’t really know what to expect out of the ag program.”
It was well-received; MMC-RU had approximately 100 students this year between junior high and high school, with classes including introduction to agriculture and middle school exploratory classes. She’ll add an environmental science class next year with an emphasis on conservation efforts, landscapes and watersheds. Green says parents have offered to help in multiple ways, including with transportation, test plots and a planned greenhouse. She compares her classroom experience to “having 4-H every day in a class.”
The curriculum includes marketing, sales, risk management and farm management, veterinary science and horticulture. Students also participate in hands-on activities and they’ve taken field trips to Dordt College’s ag program, Pioneer, Dykstra Dairy and a pork processing plant, and have tried marketing agriculture via social media. The school is fundraising to build a greenhouse for the program.
“(Students) understand what (agriculture) is, where it comes from, and they wouldn’t have had an opportunity to do that before,” she said. “It’s a lot more than cows, sows and plows.”
Barnes also received a warm welcome in Cherokee. She taught an introduction to agriculture class following the Curriculum for Ag Science Education, which she modified to her students’ needs, and also included a unit on animal science, which involved a dog, a horse and classroom ducklings. Next year, she’ll include information on natural resources and ecology as well, which will allow students taking the class to use it as an environmental science credit. She also hopes to add more field trips next fall.
This month, Cherokee and MMC-RU schools completed their first year with agriculture education programs as part of the curriculum. Much remains to be done in the coming years at both schools, but one thing is clear: AgSploration laid the groundwork for the current successes and those that lie ahead. Students are being inspired to explore agriculture-related careers at Iowa State University and elsewhere, and it all started with a few field trips and two determined educators.
“Some students (of ours) have gone into ag-related fields,” Tuttle said. “We’re hoping it opens people’s eyes a lot to agriculture – how it’s connected to almost everything.”
“They did a great job with the program getting kids involved into agriculture," MMC-RU teacher Sam Green, finishing her first year in ag education, said of AgSploration. “(Their programming) also focused a lot on what agriculture is doing around here – they made them realize that ag applies to them in so many more ways than they thought.”