When you think of the agriculture industry, what comes to mind? A farmer sitting on a tractor working in a field or a rancher feeding livestock? The steak, potatoes and corn on your plate during your evening meal? Or, maybe a wool sweater you wear when the weather turns from summer to autumn?
How about programmers? Lawyers? Lipstick?
As random and disconnected as these topics may seem, they all fall under the umbrella of agriculture, an industry constantly changing as new technologies become available.
Educators in Sheridan County are tasked with promoting the industry to the county’s youth and preparing them for integration into all areas of life.
“I think it is huge that everyone really understands that agriculture is changing, and we need to provide for those jobs,” said Monica Fowlkes, FFA advisor for Clear Creek FFA chapter at Arvada-Clearmont High School.
FFA chapters located across the nation offer educational opportunities to high school and junior high students. Each school district in Sheridan County has an FFA chapter. Joining Clear Creek FFA are John B. Kendrick FFA chapter at Sheridan High School and Tongue River Valley FFA chapter at Tongue River High School.
FFA advisors teach classes at the high schools, covering a wide range of topics with the goal of educating students on the entire agriculture industry, said Clay Christensen, John B. Kendrick FFA advisor.
Each class provides a snippet of the different areas of agriculture, including agriculture production, farm and ranch technologies, shop class, environmental and natural resources and plant science.
Education and promotion of the agriculture industry also occur outside of the classroom with Sheridan County 4-H, a local branch of the national organization open to children ages 8-18. 4-H found its beginning with agriculture and now offers more than 60 different project areas, said Emily Swinyer, Sheridan County 4-H educator for University of Wyoming Extension. Most projects are related to the agriculture industry and cover a wide range of topics.
Some FFA and 4-H members are born into the industry, growing up on a farm or ranch; others have connections through family or friends or no experience or even prior knowledge.
Regardless of a member’s background or interests, there is a project or subject out there for any student.
“It is really cool to see those kids that are not interested in agriculture really take it up and be some of your star kids that take everything in and absolutely love everything you teach them,” Fowlkes said.
4-H and FFA members are easily recognized at county fairs with the animal production projects, featuring market and breeding stock of swine, goats, cattle, sheep, rabbits and poultry. These projects are more than showing stock and chasing ribbons, Swinyer said. Education about proper nutrition and care for the animals is integral, too.
FFA offers classes highlighting the livestock production portion of the industry. Every 4-H member participating in an animal production project takes a quality assurance class taught by Swinyer. Classes are conducted at the members’ age level of juniors (8-10), intermediates (11-13) and seniors (14-18). Classes cover subjects such as diet, animal treatment, safety for consumption and how to properly vaccinate an animal.
Animal production is the bread and butter for 4-H and FFA, but advisors want to make sure they cover other areas of the industry. To help emphasize this, FFA changed its name from Future Farmers of America to the National FFA Organization in 1988, Christensen said.
Technology is changing how the world works, and agriculture is no different. As technology continues to integrate into the agriculture industry, knowledge and skill in programming and electronics is becoming more valuable.
Clear Creek FFA saw the change in technology when the group upgraded a plasma cutter in the shop. Fowlkes said they went from a handled plasma cutter to a CNC Plasma Table, where cutting out a piece of metal is now completed through programming. Learning how to use programming and design tools is important for the modern industry and was an eye-opening lesson for the students, Fowlkes said.
“Agriculture is something you can learn about every single day and always continue to grow,” Fowlkes said. “I always make the joke, ‘I will be done teaching when I am done learning.’ I do not think that will happen because I am always learning something new every day, whether it pops up on the news about something new in the industry or a student tells me about a new piece of technology.”
4-H and FFA consider the final products of the agriculture industry, too. Steaks and vegetables are commonly known, but there are other products people don’t realize derive from agricultural beginnings.
Byproducts are used to make a wide variety of items, such as lipstick, marshmallows and seed oils. Swinyer has a booth at Ag Days put on by the Sheridan County Cattlewomen each fall at the Sheridan County Exhibit Hall. She plays a game with fourth-graders in attendance, teaching them about different byproducts that come from agriculture.
4-H and FFA also offer hands-on learning experiences for members. Raising animals gives insight into animal production, showing proper care an animal needs and the importance of maintaining good records.
Judging competitions allow students to gain hands-on experience. For example, livestock and produce judging cover the production side, while meat and wool judging provide experience in byproducts.
Each area of the industry can be submitted as a research project. This is where student-specific interests can be utilized to come up with a topic, Swinyer said. Not everyone has space for livestock projects, but someone wanting to learn more about poultry, for instance, could submit a research paper and presentation board as part of indoor exhibits at the county fair. Research could be done on diseases in poultry or the different nutritional needs of an egg-laying hen compared to a meat hen. Research can also be done to coincide with a livestock production project, furthering the knowledge of the industry and combining hands-on learning with research learning.
No matter the type of project done or the experience entering 4-H and FFA programs, Swinyer, Fowlkes and Christensen know there are lessons to be learned that will apply for the rest of any child’s life.
Christensen said he loves to hear his students call cattle in a field they are passing by their breed and not simply cows. This shows what he has taught them will be used outside the classroom.
With knowledge comes a hope members share information with others.
Once the students leave the FFA program, Fowlkes and Christensen hope they leave with the ability to find accurate information and share it in a respectful way with others.
Tractors are becoming autonomous and no longer need a human sitting in a cab to operate, said Clay Christensen, John B. Kendrick FFA advisor. A farmer can control multiple machines in different fields from a computer in the comfort of his own home. Tractors need not only a mechanic when broken, but a programmer as well.
4-H members can test their programming and robotics skills at Showcase Showdown state competition held in Laramie each June. Swinyer said last year students had to build and program machines to pick up objects representing hay bales, take them to another area, then unload and stack the bales. The sequence had to be programmed to happen in one motion. Done on a small scale, it allowed students to gain experience with real-life situations.
In addition, 4-H started a robotics club this year and distributed robotics kits to the participants, giving them a chance to practice at home.
4-H Community Garden
Sheridan County 4-H started a community garden in spring 2019 and plans to grow another garden in 2020. In the first year, Emily Swinyer, Sheridan County 4-H educator for University of Wyoming Extension, had different plants grown next to each other to demonstrate how they worked together to prevent pests and weed growth.
Teaching kids how to plant a seed, the germination process, harvesting and how plants work together could have been taught in a classroom. Instead, she provided a hands-on experience and a process the members learned about and participated in.
Experiential is one of the best ways to learn for many children and is a method 4-H strongly encourages, Swinyer said.
Every year during National FFA Week, Clear Creek FFA visits the elementary schools in Arvada and Clearmont to teach younger students about different areas of agriculture, helping promote the industry to future generations.