FFA programs power workforce

Mifflinburg agriculture teachers Charles Kessler and Lindsay Spurrier stand next to a CNC Plasma Cutting Machine.

The four Valley high school Future Farmers of America chapters have a history of workforce development. 

Hundreds of students every year at Danville, Midd-West, Mifflinburg and Selinsgrove high schools are taking classes, or are out in the field learning and honing skills that could someday lead to good-paying sustainable jobs — “and I’m not talking about what people typically think of when talking about jobs in agriculture, cow and plough jobs,” said Danville High’s FFA advisor Kelly Smith-Wells.

“Agriculture jobs can relate to environmental or the biological sciences,” she said, “and there are ag-mechanical fields that pay exceedingly well, such as plumbing or welding.”

What most people don’t understand, she said, is what FFA actually is. “FFA is really an intra-curricular activity,” Smith-Wells said. “It is not really a club. We describe it as one of the three vital parts of any agricultural program.”

You begin in the classroom, or the lab shop, Smith-Wells said. “A second part is the SAE, or supervised agricultural experience, and that gives students an opportunity to take what they’ve learned in the classroom and go do it in the real world.”

“We have kids who do SAEs on raising animals, different livestock,” she said. “We also have students that have job placement SAEs that work at local agricultural businesses, like a farm supply store or a local veterinarian’s office or hospital. We try to encourage our students to go to a job that they’re interested in.”

The third part of the agricultural program is called FFA, and that is supposed to give students an opportunity to take what they’ve learned in the classroom and in the SAE and go and compete with that. “We also teach them leadership skills so they can be more successful in those chosen fields,” Smith-Wells said.

FFA is the world’s largest youth leadership organization; larger than Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts or 4H, Smith-Wells said.  

At Danville, about 120 students are enrolled in the ag program; at Mifflinburg, about 150 students.

“We have a very active program at Mifflinburg, one of the oldest FFA programs in the state,” noted Charles Kessler, an FFA teacher at Mifflinburg High School. “The ag program here was chartered in 1930. We are blessed with a very diverse agricultural industry in Union County, and when we send students to Penn State for agriculture they come out with several job offers. If they are not afraid to move, they can find a job.”

“About 80 percent of our students come from families with farms or whose grandparents or relatives have farms,” added Lindsay Spurrier, who also teaches agriculture at Mifflinburg High School. “Every once in a while we have someone who has absolutely no farm experience, but we teach them all.”

Some students take classes because they are curious, others because they want to eventually have a career that is somehow connected with agriculture.  

“Right now,” Smith-Wells said, “I am teaching an animal behavior class and one girl is working at a veterinary hospital as her SAE, but she is also FFA. They have to be in an agriculture class to be a member of the FFA. The class is a vital part of the program.”

At both Mifflinburg and Danville there are a wide variety of courses — not all taught in every semester, Kessler, of Mifflinburg, said. “Our two main areas of focus are Ag Mechanics and Ag Production. Some of the things we teach are construction skills, plumbing, tool fitting, welding, ag construction. And in the ag production area we have classes ranging from bio-technology through our typical production classes such as introduction to different livestock species, introduction to poultry, introduction to swine. We have chickens at Mifflinburg.”

There are also small animals classes, veterinary science class, and landscaping, where Mifflinburg students landscape both at the school and in the community from time to time.

Welding classes have also been popular. “That’s not surprising,” Kessler said. “We had a student who graduated a few years ago and is a welding consultant. He makes $75 an hour. Welding opportunities around here are incredible. We try to impress on our students that agricultural studies can lead to very good paying jobs.”

Send comments to rdandes@dailyitem.com. Follow Dandes on Twitter @rdandes.

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