Seeking an A-OK for an FFA

July 14, 2022 | Jeff Hutton

Nestled among the soybean and corn fields, north central Iowa is home to small towns and rural school districts.

It’s no surprise most students are exposed to agricultural-based or vocational ag education, as well as an opportunity to be a part of an FFA (formerly Future Farmers of America) chapter.

That is unless you live in the Central Springs School District.

Students who attend classes in Central Springs, which includes the communities of Manly, Nora Springs, Plymouth and Rock Falls, do not provide a strand of ag-based courses. And despite FFA chapters in seven neighboring school districts, the familiar national blue corduroy jacket with the corn gold emblem on the back is an unfamiliar sight for students at Central Springs.

Central Springs is just one of four school districts in the Iowa FFA’s north central region, that currently do not have an FFA chapter (the others are Mason City, Clarksville and Marshalltown).

But that’s about to change.

Coming together

Two years ago, an FFA student from a neighboring school district spoke in front of the Central Springs school board as she practiced for her bid for state FFA office. The room was filled with community members there to show support for welcoming a program of this type to the district.

“School board discussion followed about potential next steps, district patrons expressed their willingness to help, but the onset of COVID-19 put the brakes on everything,” says Laura Cunningham, whose family has a rich history in FFA.

“It was at that point that we knew the energy and momentum needed to be channeled somewhere, and thus the formation of Central Springs AgEd Boosters – our 501(c)(3) group that would drive the process forward.”

Central Springs AgEd Boosters, led by Cunningham and Jessica Lutz, includes a group of parents, businesses and students focused on supporting ag-based curriculum and instruction, while also backing a new FFA chapter.

“To our knowledge, Central Springs has never had an FFA chapter, let alone a strand of ag classes outside of a short stint in the 1960s,” says Lutz, whose husband graduated from the district (then known as North Central).

Lutz and her husband met 18 years ago when they were both majoring in agriculture at Iowa State University, and he shared that he was never a part of an FFA chapter.

“I didn’t want to see another 18 years go by without having this opportunity for the students of the Central Springs school district. We now have two children, and I would like to see them and their peers be able to take ag classes at the high school level and have the opportunity to be involved in FFA,” Lutz says. “FFA was a valuable part of my high school career in my hometown of Maquoketa.”

Moving Forward

At the close of 2021 when in-person classes resumed, efforts to revisit the project were initiated.

“Several key pieces fell into play early on. We had an instructor on school staff with an ag education background; incredible community support; student initiative, many underclassmen who contacted school board members, conducted surveys of their peers and attended meetings to voice their support,” Cunningham says.

While the Central Springs district was supportive, initiating ag education and establishing of a new FFA chapter costs money – money the district did not have given already tight budgets and limited staff.

Officially launched this past April, Central Spring AgEd Boosters set out to raise $400,000. That’s the cost to fund the program in full, train the instructor on new curriculum, outfit STEM lab stations and provide funding to sustain an FFA chapter over the next five years. In year six, the district will fully incorporate the ag curriculum and FFA chapter under its auspices.

“We’ve been fairly successful raising one-third of the total amount needed in just a few months,” Cunningham says. “Our business community has been amazing.”

The remaining two-thirds of the funds, however, must be raised by 2023, although Lutz and Cunningham believe they are well on their way.

Cunningham notes the importance of ag education and FFA in the community, citing also the numerous jobs connected to agriculture.

“It’s not just an industry of farmers, it’s ag lenders, ag mechanics, animal nutritionists, plant scientists and more. These careers feed into agriculture with big local influence. One in three people in Worth County are employed in agriculture,” Cunningham says. “Training these students is important for the future of employers in the North Iowa area.”

Last month, Central Springs’ future ag courses were outlined, instructors put in place and students registered for classes. The group reached its first milestone and received a “full speed ahead” nod from the district.

“With all that our school district has put into motion for this project, we feel more confident than ever in moving forward with our fundraising efforts,” Cunningham says.

Touchstone to the past; looking to the future

An informational meeting about the organization is in the works for August. The group has also created a Facebook page and website for the public and interested donors to learn more.

For Cunningham, the establishment of the booster club is a touchstone to her past and a guiding light toward the future.

“Seventy-two years ago in 1950, my grandfather started the (neighboring) Rockford (school district) FFA chapter. The program laid groundwork for many second- and third-generation farmers and business owners in the North Iowa area to find lasting success. We want to do that for students at Central Springs,” she says. “My 20-month-old son is a future Panther, hopefully the next generation to live and work on our family farm and in our local community. AgEd and FFA can provide the training and experience he and other students need in considering local opportunities in agriculture, connect with their community and see a path and a place for themselves here in the future.”