From the classroom to the fairgrounds
It’s Tuesday, just days before the start of the 2021 Iowa State Fair. Agriculture educators, FFA advisors and student members are starting to arrive in Des Moines, and you can feel the excitement and anticipation of what’s to come in the next 10 days. Their year of hard work in agricultural learning and perseverance post-pandemic shutdown is finally coming to fruition.
This year, 2,110 student exhibitors with over 8,130 individual exhibits are scheduled to show during the Iowa State Fair. Types of exhibits range from farm animals to horticulture to photography. For agriculture education, preparing for the Iowa State Fair can be one of the best ways to participate in hands-on learning.
“The Iowa State Fair is definitely a great way for student members to show what they’ve learned through their supervised agricultural experience (SAE) projects,” said Dennis Meggers, Iowa FFA event supervisor. “This includes not just livestock but also agriculture mechanics, tractor restoration, horticulture, floriculture and leadership skills. They demonstrate what they’ve produced, how they rented land or equipment and how to get started in the production side of agriculture.”
Students work throughout the year to showcase their talents and interests in agriculture through these work-based learning projects. And Iowa’s agriculture educators are there for every step, starting in the classroom and moving onward with them to the county and state fairs, open shows and other contests.
“These events and this experience at the fair don’t happen without the ag teacher in the classroom,” said Matthew Eddy, Iowa FFA state advisor at the Iowa Department of Education. “Agriculture teaching is a great profession. It’s an opportunity to help people learn how agriculture is connected to our state and to be a contributor to the agricultural workforce and community.”
Meggers, a newly retired agriculture educator with 39 years of experience, believes ag teachers have the opportunity to help students explore what career paths they may like in the field and find their niche.
“It’s helping them discover that lightbulb moment,” Meggers said. “I’ve had students come into the program who are unsure or shy. Once they find their interest, whether it’s leadership or livestock, they blossom.”
Meggers points out that agriculture education and involvement in FFA organizations can be more than just crop or animal science experiences. It can also include building public speaking skills, business acumen, photography experience and even radio broadcasting.
“There are so many areas,” he said. “I have two senior girls who are interning with WHO Radio at the Iowa State Fair this year. It is an exploratory time for them to discover where they want to go.”
As a career and technical student organization, the Iowa FFA Association has nearly 16,500 student members from 248 local chapters who are exploring their career and skill-building possibilities. Each chapter strives to develop leaders of all kinds through agriculture education.
Charles City Community Schools agriculture educator and FFA chapter advisor Bret Spurgin agrees that FFA chapters and agriculture experiences play an important role in preparing students for their futures.
“Learning new skills and responsibilities, conducting research and problem solving outside of the typical class work are really important,” he said. “It gets students ready for jobs of today and also the jobs that will be created in 10 years in the future.”
Spurgin, who also serves as the head superintendent of the FFA swine show during the Iowa State Fair, notes that agriculture educators frame SAE projects as true work-based learning opportunities for students and are experiences that could lead to industry-recognized credentials.
“One of the biggest things I assist with as an agriculture educator is helping students who exhibit livestock to become youth quality care of animals certified,” he said. “It shows they know how to properly raise livestock when it is going into the food chain for the public.”
In Charles City, Spurgin has also encouraged the FFA chapter to tie their agriculture projects into their community’s improvement. One recent project had the students learn how to raise animals, such as litters of pigs and chickens, at school. These protein sources were eventually used for 35 Thanksgiving meals for families in need.
Additionally, the Charles City FFA chapter was recently named as a National Finalist for the Premier Chapter - Strengthening Agriculture Award in recognition for their raised garden bed project. In partnership with Americorp and Iowa State University Extension Master Gardeners, Spurgin’s students built six raised garden beds for low-income housing residents. These garden beds provided fresh vegetables to the residents and helped address food insecurity in the community, which was especially important during the pandemic when many people could not access produce. To continue their success, an additional four garden beds were built this summer.
As ag educators, Spurgin and Meggers have seen much success from their students and their projects. Both educators note any successful ag teacher must be willing to keep an open mind and try new things. And they encourage any student who is interested in learning more about leadership or exploring their career pathways to join up with their local FFA chapter.
“I get to do so many different things as part of my job as an ag teacher,” Spurgin said. “I work with students, build relationships with parents and administrators and see students have fun. When they came up with agriculture education and FFA many years ago, they did a great job. It works."