“Agriculture is such a wide and broad field that encompasses so many facets that ag education has something for everyone.”
“It definitely gets put to good use and then the students get that learning experience as well.”
“And so all three of those play off of each other to give students a well-rounded background that’s going to prepare them for future careers in the industry.”
“We really like to talk about this leadership development for students . . . which is what I think makes FFA and agricultural education as a whole is so unique, and we’re preparing our students for life after high school.”
“And by having ag education, we’re preparing students to enter into that career field. Agriculture is the number one industry in Pennsylvania, in the United States and truly in the world, because it supplies us, every single one of us as a human being, with our basic needs.”
“So again, thinking from an economic impact standpoint, agriculture is huge, and we need students to be entering into this type of careers so that we can supply the food, the fiber, the fuel resources, whatever it might be for our growing population.”
“Agriculture is going to be at the forefront of continuing the lifestyle that we have here in the United States and across the globe.”
“Reach out to other schools that have ag education. Our ag teachers are also a great resource. We will help other districts and share what we’re doing.”
“I think I never truly understood the importance of the agricultural industry until I got to high school and I had experience in FFA, and really my eyes were opened to what that looks like.”
“And I love this industry, the agricultural industry, because of the community that I found within it. And so this year as a state officer, I really had the opportunity to be that community for other members.”
“We’re also advocates for the agricultural industry.”
“National Ag Day is devoted to increasing public awareness on the vital role that agriculture plays in our world. So, we’re celebrating the agricultural industry that many of us get to call home, as well as celebrating our farmers and modern-day agriculturalists, whether they’re on the farm in production agriculture, or just somehow connected in some outside way.”
“There really is truly something for everybody, and it is so important at the economic level to get people involved in agriculture in the future.”
Q: So, Kacey, would you start by telling us a little about the agricultural classes being taught in Oley Valley schools?
A (Kacey): Yeah. We have one of five ag education programs in Berks County, and probably one of a few hundred in the State of Pennsylvania. It is not something that is at every school district, so that’s kind of a unique thing to point out that not all schools do have ag education programs like ours, but we have a kind of wide variety of courses that try to cover all that is ag education and in the field of agriculture. So, we have some full-year courses that span from the start of school in September through the end in June. And that includes Advanced Animal Science, Plant Science and Horticulture, Food Science and Technology, an Agricultural Engineering course, Agro-Environmental Sciences and Advanced Placement Environmental Science course, as well as an Animal and Plant Biotechnology course.
And then in addition to that, we have a few semester-long courses that we offer as well. One in ag business, one called FFA Leadership, another Ag Genetics, and then new as of the 2020-2021 school year, we added a Veterinary Technician A and a Veterinary Technician B course. Between all of those, I am not the only one that does all of that. I have another ag education teacher here. His name is Mr. Jeremy Deysher. So, between the two of us, we cover all of that curriculum for our students in our program. We teach about 100 students out of our district, which is around . . . student body population in the high school is around 500. So, we see a decent portion of the students in our high school. And one thing I almost forgot was we also have an eighth-grade course at our middle school where we do a trimester-based kind of intro to ag sciences as a feeder to our high school program.
Q: It sounds like a lot. You mentioned that you work with another teacher, but even for two teachers, that sounds like a really wide range of classes under that overarching umbrella of agriculture. That’s amazing.
A (Kacey): And that’s the point as well, though. Agriculture is such a wide and broad field that encompasses so many facets that ag education has something for everyone and is some of the significance of teaching this to the younger generation to get them interested in careers in this industry, because there’s so many opportunities.
Q: So, your story caught our attention. You submitted it to us for the Success Starts Here website, or someone within your district did. And what I wanted to know a little bit more about from that story is the hydroponics garden and what the students are doing with the produce, as well as the newly initiated, you mentioned the vet tech classes, so how does that all fit together?
A (Kacey): I’ll give you some of the history in how we got some of this stuff started. In 2011, which is actually when I started teaching here at the Oley Valley School District, was the year of 2011-2012, we got a grant from the National FFA, Learning by Doing Grant to start implementing some raised bed gardening. And we have that outside of our ag education classrooms here. So, we started on that. And then a couple of years later in 2013, we got a $10,000 grant from Monsanto, and we use that to start aquaponics, and aquaponics is a combination of both hydroponics and aquaculture.
So we started raising tilapia and growing lettuce and different vegetables in the grow bed in that kind of sustainable system. And from that, then we continued to expand. The Pennsylvania Department of Education does some Supplemental Equipment Grants for vocational education programs. So we were able to then start more hydroponics, and we added in what’s called an NFT or Nutrient Film Technique type of hydroponic system. We also got a vertical hydroponic system that we used for tomatoes, because they can grow essentially as tall as they can, or as high as the building can let them grow that you can support.
And then a few years later, I think it was about 2016, it’s about four or five years now that we’ve had what we call our grow room. So, we took one of the extra rooms, I guess you could say, in our building and we kind of put all of our hydroponics, aquaponics things in there, and so now we have a nice place to have the students get that hands-on education through those types of systems, things that they would be working with in the agricultural industry or potential careers someday.
And the produce that we get from that, so I was mentioning tomatoes and lettuce and herbs are most that we try to send to the cafeteria, including the stuff from the raised bed gardens, where it started it all. But the raised beds gardens, obviously most of that happens starting here in the spring and over the summer. So, during the summer months we keep everything going as well. We get some students to come in, volunteer their time over the summer, and a lot of the produce over the summer gets donated to the local food pantry here in Oley.
So if the school district doesn’t have a use for it at that point in time, like if it was right before the holiday break, again, we try to give it to the food pantry. So, it definitely gets put to good use and then the students get that learning experience as well.
Q: That’s awesome. Truly a farm-to-table experience right within your own school district. That’s really interesting, and super cool. So, you may have kind of touched upon this in explaining the different stages, but can you talk about the three-tiered education model that FFA embodies?
A (Kacey): Yeah. And FFA is really one of the tiers of what we consider ag education. And so we have the classroom instruction that obviously is kind of the traditional school setting, but we’re teaching those agricultural courses that I mentioned earlier. Then you also have the FFA, which is considered an intracurricular organization, because it really does build upon what they’re learning in the classroom. And then the third tier is what’s called SAE, which stands for a Supervised Agricultural Experience. So again, they’re taking what they’re learning in the classroom and then having some sort of project or experience-based activity outside of the classroom. So, that might be in the form of a placement where they actually get a job or an internship with a career related to their interests, or if the kid’s taking plant science this year, they might go work for a greenhouse, or something to that effect.
They could also do entrepreneurship-based projects if they have say poultry at home that they can raise or the ability to raise some animals, they could do those types of projects as well to gain experience, potentially to a future vet or animal science-related career. And so all three of those play off of each other to give students a well-rounded background that’s going to prepare them for future careers in the industry. The FFA, one of the other key components I feel that is crucial with that piece is the leadership skills that they learn in the FFA organization. And I can maybe let Jessica jump in here to touch base a little bit on that FFA tier and talk about all that that organization really provides and how it builds off of those other two.
A (Jessica): I’d love to talk a little bit about that. So, I’ve been involved in FFA for the past five years, and I can truly attest to the fact that those leadership skills that are learned throughout the organization are really valuable. Students have the opportunity to compete in what we call career or leadership development events, which is just one opportunity for students to gain public speaking skills, better understand how to work on a team or the dedication of practicing and preparing for these contests, where students can compete at the regional, state and potentially national level within these contests. And along with that, Mrs. Rice had mentioned these SAE projects.
So, we really like to talk about this leadership development for students, and because it’s an intracurricular organization, other clubs at the school don’t have the opportunity to really get these leadership opportunities for students in this organization like FFA as well as in the classroom, which is what I think makes FFA and agricultural education as a whole is so unique, and we’re preparing our students for life after high school, whether that’s a job within the agricultural industry, production ag on the farm or off the farm, or just some other job that they’re interested in, which I think is really cool and really special that our organization is unique in that sense. And we’re really preparing our students for the future.
Q: That’s great to hear from the student perspective. So, I’ll direct this one back to you, Kacey. What do you see as, and then we’ll get to your perspective on it too, Jessica, but what do you see as the benefits of implementing agricultural curriculum in public school education? You talked a little bit earlier about showing students that broad range of opportunities and the experiences, anything beyond that, that you didn’t already touch upon?
A (Kacey): I think the biggest thing is just talking about the economic impact that agriculture has as a whole. And by having ag education, we’re preparing students to enter into that career field. Agriculture is the number one industry in Pennsylvania, in the United States and truly in the world, because it supplies us, every single one of us as a human being, with our basic needs. I have a couple of statistics that I like to share about the economic impact in that there are 63,163 farms in Pennsylvania. We have over 7.8 billion acres of farmland, and Pennsylvania is one of the top states for farmland preservation as well in the country, with the average farm size being about 124 acres. The market value of all of our agricultural products sold is over about $5 billion worth of product.
So again, thinking from an economic impact standpoint, agriculture is huge, and we need students to be entering into this type of careers so that we can supply the food, the fiber, the fuel resources, whatever it might be for our growing population. And thinking of that in terms from a global standpoint as well, we’re at about like 7.7, roughly, billion people, anticipated 10 billion people, agriculture is going to be at the forefront of continuing the lifestyle that we have here in the United States and across the globe. The United States supplies almost half of the world’s corn supply. So, some of those types of things are important to think about when we think about the benefits of ag education. I truly believe that ag education should be involved in every school district in the country and in the state of Pennsylvania, but obviously that’s not the case. But having those ag education programs, the ones we do really help to support that industry for our future.
Q: Yeah. Those are some pretty substantial numbers, the data points that you referenced. It really does put it in perspective, this sort of foundational profession and operational system that happens in support of all of society, really. How would a school district go about…you talked about the catalyst in your programs, how would a school district go about implementing FFA curriculum in their schools? What suggestions would you have?
A (Kacey): Well, and first of all, because of it, we go back to the three-tier model here that we follow. In order to start FFA, you actually need to start the ag education program and you need to have a certified instructor, someone who has their degree in ag in extension education like myself, and get that ag education program started. And then once you have that, you can go about starting an FFA chapter in kind of building those three tiers of your ag education. And the National FFA, depending on where you’re located, is a great resource. They do have some information on their website as far as how to start a chapter and whatnot. As far as Pennsylvania, we have our excellent state advisor to the FFA students like Jessica, Mr. Michael Brammer, he’s an excellent resource. If a school district is looking to start, he will come out to the school, he’ll talk to the school, board members, administrators and help them along that path.
And then the other thing I always say is reach out to other schools that have ag education. Our ag teachers are also a great resource. We will help other districts and share what we’re doing. I know Oley Valley, we’ve done a couple tours for other school districts. Most of the time, I feel like they’re tourists for other ag teachers, just to see when they’re going through remodeling processes, what could we do at our school that we’re not doing currently. But we also did a tour for the secretary of ag, Russell Redding and those types of individuals, so they can see what’s actually happening in the classroom, and then hopefully help support that from the legislative standpoint.
Q: So, are there any K-12 initiatives? I think you mentioned in your district that you start at the eighth grade point, and so are there any K-12 initiatives that PA FFA offers prior to that age frame?
A (Kacey): As far as true initiatives, I would say, I don’t know of anything, but we often offer a lot of opportunities for our younger students. At Oley Valley, actually, coming up next week is Ag Literacy Week where we will go down to our elementary school, and we will read a story to our kindergarten, first and second graders that relates to food production and understanding where their food comes from, and do an activity with them. We’ve also got our elementary school involved with the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau that has a mobile ag lab, so they were coming out this week because our elementary school really does a lot in March, because of National Ag Day which we’re going to talk about later.
So, I think our current ag programs do a lot within their districts for the elementary and middle school levels to teach those younger students. There are also a lot of great resources out there. So, if there isn’t an ag program at the school already, there’s curriculum from the National Ag in the Classroom. They have a website full of resources, it’s all K-12. Like I said, the Farm Bureau has their mobile ag lab and they also have a lot of other educator resources on their website. There’s a neat program out there Discover Dairy that has a lot of elementary and middle school resources. And they started this a few years ago where they do an Adopt a Cow program where an elementary school classroom can adopt a cow, and they get somewhat monthly or so updates, pictures, stories, they do video conferencing. So, that’s a neat experience to get them exposed to the dairy industry.
So, there are a lot of resources out there. I think one of the things that ag education maybe needs to work on is making sure that districts that don’t have those ag education programs know that these resources are out there for them to utilize. Another great example is also the Penn State Extension. There are a lot of great educators. That extension office is known for some of their embryology projects where they’ll hatch out chicks in the elementary school and expose them to that sort of ag experience as well. So, there are programs and curriculum out there for educators to use K-12.
Q: And that would be a way that schools that don’t have a formal program incorporated yet, that’s the way educators can still be bringing that into the educational space?
A (Kacey): Yes, absolutely.
Q: Great. So Jessica, let’s talk to you about what were your experiences being involved? You talked a little bit earlier about some of the benefits, but what were some of your experiences with FFA during your time in high school? How did you become interested in being part of that, or interested in agriculture, or just interested in the program?
A (Jessica): Sure. So, FFA has been a huge part of my life and my family’s life for many, many years. I grew up in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, on a small dairy, poultry and crop farm. So, my love for agriculture truly runs deep, and I have deep roots in Lancaster County and Lancaster County agriculture as a whole. But I think I never truly understood the importance of the agricultural industry until I got to high school and I had experience in FFA, and really my eyes were opened to what that looks like. But something cool about me is that my first day in an ag class in high school, my first day as an FFA member was also my older sister’s first day as the ag teacher at my local high school. So, some of my fondest memories from being an FFA member is celebrating those little victories, or experiencing these really cool, exciting things within the organization alongside my older sister, as well as both of my parents have really been involved in our chapter for many years in our county fair as well.
So, my life has been surrounded by agriculture and by mentors and people who have consistently encouraged me to go further in the organization. And I loved FFA because I was constantly encouraged by people, but I was also given a platform to give back to those people who gave so much to me. And I love this industry, the agricultural industry, because of the community that I found within it. And so this year as a state officer, I really had the opportunity to be that community for other members, even though it looks a little bit different and sometimes it has to be over Zoom, but I’ve loved how my story has been surrounded by some really special people, and I hope to do that this year of service as a state officer as well.
Q: And so you’re mentioning your position, what are your duties as the state FFA secretary?
A (Jessica): Sure. So, I serve on a team of seven students where we defer college and careers for a year to serve the nearly 13,000 Pennsylvania FFA members across the state. So, we stay pretty busy and of course this year, like everyone else has looked quite different because of COVID-19, but we still found ways to serve as a mentor and a resource to our members, which is really our main job this year. So, we do this by facilitating leadership workshops, whether that’s in-person in the classroom if we have that opportunity or over Zoom, where we’re Zooming into classes, talking with students about topics in agriculture, as well as leadership, communication and team building. We’re also supporting these students throughout their FFA career, so like I mentioned, being a resource, answering questions that these students may have, encouraging them to pursue future career goals or different opportunities in the industry, as well as FFA as a whole.
And alongside that, we’re also advocates for the agricultural industry. So, this year we develop and maintain working relationships with agribusiness professionals, Pennsylvania FFA sponsors, and government officials to share the story of not only American agriculture, but agriculture right here in Pennsylvania, and not all of my teammates have a story like mine, where they come right off the farm and their family has been involved in FFA, so they have that unique perspective of either being involved in urban agriculture or not really understanding agriculture until they got to high school. And so, the opportunity to share that story and get to talk to other people about their own view on the industry has been really cool, and to get to share my experiences and hear about other people’s as well, makes our life pretty busy, but also really fulfilling to get to learn more about other people.
Q: Oh, that’s sounds like a full-time endeavor for this time that you’re performing this role. It really sounds like a full-time gig.
A (Jessica): A little bit. Yeah.
Q: Yeah. That’s great. It’s exciting-sounding. So, you’ve mentioned National Ag Day which I understand is March 23rd. Can you explain a little bit about this recognized day, and what our listeners might take away from being part of the observation of that day, and this is for either of you?
A (Jessica): I can get us started off, Kacey. So, National Ag Day is devoted to increasing public awareness on the vital role that agriculture plays in our world. So, we’re celebrating the agricultural industry that many of us get to call home, as well as celebrating our farmers and modern-day agriculturalists, whether they’re on the farm in production agriculture, or just somehow connected in some outside way. So, a few things that I’ll be doing to celebrate National Ag Day is taking a look at some of the webinars that you can find at agday.org, as well as I have the opportunity to participate in some legislative visits, along with one of my other teammates and some other agricultural representatives from Penn State University, and other state representatives from across the country, students that are my age. We’re just starting a conversation with legislators about agriculture and youth organizations, and why it’s so important and how they can take a role in celebrating National Ag Day alongside with us.
Q: And so you’re going to be speaking with state legislators on that day, is that right?
A (Jessica): Yes, I will.
Q: That’s pretty exciting. That’s what the full-time advocate, lobbyist do, so you’re already performing that work, which is great. And maybe Kacey, this one’s for you. How can students and school leaders get involved? What is there to be involved in on that day?
A (Kacey): Honestly, a lot of it is just kind of along the lines of what Jessica said, really celebrating the industry. So, the high school webinars classes, we try to share with students on that day, recognize it, really promote it amongst our students that they should be reaching out to the community, thanking their local farmers, connecting with them. And one opportunity that we have locally for Oley Valley School District in Berks County, there’s an organization called BARN, stands for Berks Ag Resource Network, and they do an ag day video contest. So, our students are currently preparing for that. It’s for grades 3-12, they can develop a video, submit it, and it’s obviously a contest that they’re hopefully trying to win the different prizes, and it’s sponsored by friends for Senator Judy Schwank and our [county] commissioner, Christian Leinbach.
So, they have been tremendous supporters at the legislative level for ag education and ag in general, but from an elementary standpoint or middle school, anyone again that doesn’t have an ag education program, it’s a great day to just maybe do ag lesson or bring up some ag trivia in the classroom, so that students become more aware of all that is agriculture, because like we mentioned before, there’s so many things that make up ag. We have such a wide variety of aspects that are involved in the industry, and there really is truly something for everybody, and it is so important at the economic level to get people involved in agriculture in the future. So, that’s what we’re doing here at Oley, just celebrating that day and participating in that video contest. But there’s lots of things that other people can be doing like I said, at the school level.
Q: Great. Well, I do want to thank you for sharing your story with us first on Success Starts Here. We love to get those great stories on the website there to share them out more broadly, but also thank you for joining me on this podcast to tell us a little more detail around this program. Thanks so much.
A (Kacey): And thank you for having us. It was a pleasure.
A (Jessica): Thank you so much.
Q: Thank you, Jessica. And good luck in your role. This is exciting for you, I’m sure.
A (Jessica): Yes, it is. Thank you.
Kacey Rice is an agriculture teacher and FFA advisor at Oley Valley School District. She also serves as the president of the Pennsylvania Association of Agricultural Educators within the Pennsylvania Future Farmers of America.
Jessica Herr is the current State FFA Secretary for Pennsylvania. She is a 2020 graduate of Lampeter Strasburg High School.