Can you picture where you were 40 years ago today? Kevin Cooper can. He was at the Iowa State Fair serving as an FFA adviser to student exhibitors. Fast forward to today, and he is there, once more, in his 40th year of advising, leading over 30 FFA members in various competitions and activities in agriculture leadership and skill building.
Cooper, an agriculture educator for the Nevada Community School District, understands that the Iowa State Fair is more than just a fun summertime outing for his student members. It is a competitive hands-on learning experience that can help strengthen and develop a young person’s skills and knowledge in many areas, not just agriculture.
“For the competitions, these students have to be well-prepared,” he said. “It requires studying details and building skills they need to compete. Through these projects, they are building real-world employability skills like communication and critical thinking as well as strengthening their emotional intelligence.”
FFA, a career and technical student organization, touts over 18,600 total members in 285 schools statewide, and many of these FFA members use the opportunity to exhibit at the fair as their supervised agricultural experience (SAE). An SAE project is led by the student and allows them to apply what they have learned in the classroom to work-based learning experiences. These experiences provide ample opportunities to explore potential career pathways, gain new abilities and build confidence.
For 17-year-old Nevada High School senior Josie Kelly, her SAE has kept her busy over the past three-and-half months. She has restored an Allis-Chalmers WD45 tractor, which has required painting it back to its original orange color and completing body work like fixing dents and other imperfections. By preparing for her Iowa State Fair exhibit, Josie feels she has grown in many ways.
“I’ve learned much more about problem solving, how to work with other people and how to communicate better,” she said. “For my project, I have to be able to describe things in detail and communicate on what all I worked on to the judges.”
Many FFA students have the opportunity to serve as ushers and attendants during the Iowa State Fair, and Josie is excited to also be an usher during this year’s event. Moreover, she is a part of the usher leadership team and will be getting first-hand experience in coordinating and managing staff.
“It’s my job to assign different ushers to their gate duty,” Josie said. “I also make schedules, check in to make sure everyone is doing okay and fill in open spots.”
Josie notes that she is interested in a career in politics one day, and she and Cooper believe her overall experiences in FFA have helped her prepare.
“Josie participated in Iowa Girls State, which goes over the political process, and was selected to go to Girls Nation in Washington, D.C.,” Cooper said. “Parliamentary procedure is part of FFA, and she was able to strengthen her skills and interests in that in FFA.”
Iowa’s 254 FFA student chapters will have a strong presence at the fairgrounds during the 11-day Iowa State Fair. This year, 2,040 exhibitors with 8,203 individual exhibits will compete for top honors in front of judges and the public.
Cooper’s FFA students are scheduled to participate in ag mechanics, floraculture, horticulture and beef, swine and sheep livestock competitions. And although this is his 40th year in advising students, he still gets a kick out of seeing each of them shine in competition.
“I love to see the students grow in confidence,” he said. “They are here at 7 a.m. getting ready to exhibit. They are texting me early in the morning to go over potential questions from the judges. They are getting their documentation ready. There are no days off for these kids, and as they’re the future of our society, it is fun and satisfying to see.”