If you take the time to thank your volunteers, send news releases to the media, and send your administrators notes about what your chapter is up to, then we’ve got news for you: You are a marketing professional.
Most agricultural educators are happy to blow their students’ horns, but ask them to create a marketing plan, and the hesitation is understandable. After all, agriculture and teaching are their areas of expertise. Most have never even set foot in a marketing class.
Nevertheless, having a marketing plan is a key way to ensure that you’re telling your story well, and you don’t need an MBA to do it. With some careful planning of your year’s activities, you can make marketing a part of every effort. You’ll even find help on ffa.org to do it!
Mark Burdick has been teaching agriculture and leading his FFA chapter for 30 years, and he’s still in the thick of it at Housatonic Valley Regional High School in Falls Village, Conn. “Our major marketing effort involves recruitment – speaking to the eighth-grade students in the region,” he says. “We also use our FFA banquet and open house as marketing tools for the community, as well as individual class projects and service projects such as Habitat for Humanity.”
Burdick also takes students to legislative meetings and professional association meetings, sharing the story of their agricultural education program to key leaders in the community and the state. “All of our key audiences are invited to our faculty breakfast, where they can meet and spend time together,” Mark says. Their annual open house, which gives the students experience in presenting demonstrations, is also a key marketing effort, where more than 80 members of the community come in and assess each student’s work.
Alice Dubois started marketing her agricultural education program before she even knew she was doing it. Dubois teaches at Ponchatoula High School in Ponchatoula, La. “When I first came here, I was the only Ag teacher and, out of desperation, I got an advisory committee together. The ag department had been dying, and the superintendent told me when I was hired that the department would only be there for another year,” she recalls with a chuckle, now 15 years later. “Maybe we backed into it, but anytime you have an advisory board and involve anyone in the community or even just the school community, you’re an advocate for ag education, and you’re communicating and marketing.”
Over the years, Dubois, with the addition of a second agriculture teacher, has become more concentrated in her program’s marketing efforts. “Donna and I are walking, talking marketing tools for Ag Ed because we love it so much. Our students are the same way. When the kids go out into the community to do service projects or to the junior high school to teach science experiments, those folks better be ready to hear about Ag Ed because our students love it and talk about it all the time,” she says.
These enthusiastic agricultural education ambassadors include a student reporter and a student marketing committee who write and send news releases and maintain a website. “Our emphasis here, especially since Hurricane Katrina, has been service. Service is great to help people, but we’ve learned what a tremendous benefit it is to students – to help these young people build character and skills,” Dubois says. “And when you’re out there helping people, the local newspaper covers the good things you do, and then people get curious and wonder, ‘who are these kids?’”
In addition to sharing their service stories with the media, the public website and school officials, the chapter places articles in the state FFA newsletter. The chapter also hosts a large conference every year with varying themes, involving the state universities for help (and to see some agricultural education students they might want to have at their university). “Last year we invited the lieutenant governor’s office to come to the conference, and they came,” Dubois says. “This year they called and asked if they could come back!”
The chapter also reaches legislative leaders. Teachers take the FFA officer team to the state capitol, where they visit with legislators and sit in on legislative committee meetings. It’s educational for the students, but it also exposes legislators to the agricultural education story, courtesy of some very enthusiastic student leaders.
Most recently, the FFA chapter led a dog therapy program for fellow students in special education classes. “It was in many ways a miracle. Kids spoke during the program and at the banquet who had never said a word before. The special education teacher was in tears because she had never seen those kids do so well,” Dubois says. “And my Ag Ed students – it changed their lives. I had two boys with discipline problems that led that dog therapy program with such care and concern.” In addition to leading the dog therapy sessions, the students made dog biscuits and sold them, using the money to purchase FFA jackets for each of the students in the dog therapy program. Now, a student-produced DVD documentary about the program is being sent to opinion leaders, universities and every FFA chapter in the state.
Whenever activities like this take place, Dubois e-mails the superintendent and his secretary. “They see students winning awards, providing service and going to student development events, and then we come back and tell them how we did and what the kids got from the experience,” Dubois explains. “You always have to keep putting the story out there, so people understand that kids are building the skills employers want – skills that will allow them to be comfortable in a crowd, talking to a lot of people. We have students who couldn’t talk to an adult on a very basic level before they got involved in FFA. Now they’re stepping up and talking with the lieutenant governor and the secretary of agriculture.”
The Ponchatoula High School chapter’s marketing plan involves real activities that develop students’ skills and leadership, advocate for agricultural education, and touch the community in real and meaningful ways. If you can manage to do that, all that’s left is to simply help your students tell others what you’re doing, through news releases, notes and presentations. “As you step out and do bigger and broader things, that just expands your influence,” Dubois observes. And as it turns out, expanding your influence is the very pinnacle of marketing.
For more information on marketing, including a packet of marketing forms and education, visit the educators’ workroom section on marketing at ffa.org.