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 Sharing Your Story: Spreading the Ag Ed message

 

As far as being a teacher goes, your plate likely has a lot more on it than most. In addition to teaching, mentoring and encouraging students, you’re actively helping kids with SAE projects and contests and attending workshops and conferences. The fifth FFA National Quality Program Standard tells you that you should also be actively marketing and communicating all the great things you’re doing...but isn’t it enough just to DO them?

It might seem that telling the story of your FFA chapter is something easy to ignore compared to your other responsibilities, but teachers who have tried it have found just the opposite to be true. Consistently communicating about and promoting your successes is a great way to gain more support for your efforts. And the best part is that the responsibility doesn’t lie solely on you. Many teachers have found ways to make marketing part of their students’ regular activities.

“Marketing and advocacy is always an ongoing task that takes time and effort, but it’s necessary to look for ways to let all of our publics know what we’re doing and why it’s important for us to be here doing it,” says Paul Larson, an agriculture educator at Freedom High School in Wisconsin. “I want them to not be able to get by without this program and to know that we’re important to the community and its overall success.”

To create this awareness, Larson and his students send news releases, run a community food pantry and invite school board members to events. Larson and his students also send frequent notes about their activities, as well as plants and flowers from the greenhouse, to school leaders, thanking them for their work. At the state level, Larson leads an advocacy effort to pass legislation forming an agricultural education workforce development council. Larson’s students head to meet legislators every year at FFA Day on the Hill.

Laura Moore, agriculture educator at Plenty Coups High School in Pryor, Mont., is the only agriculture teacher at her small high school of about 60 students. More than half of these students, living in a Native American community full of ranches, are in FFA. The student’s major efforts involve running their school farm and raising its livestock (which has impacted the whole community), as well as presenting a program on Native American culture in association with agriculture (a presentation that has won them first place in the FFA/American Indian program at the Montana state FFA convention for the last three years.) Additionally, the students also lead the chapter’s marketing efforts.

“We take our presentations, and we go places, and the kids get public speaking experience. If we are applying for grants like the grant from the Montana FFA Foundation to fund our school farm, the kids go to the FFA state board and make presentations about how we’re using the money they gave us,” she says. The students also give presentations about their activities at state and national conventions, and their chapter reporter writes stories for the school newspaper and news releases for the town newspaper in Billings.

Moore also communicates with other Montana agriculture teachers through a “metnet” that allows state agriculture educators to share information. The result of all this effort has been continued funding for their programs, donated animals for the farm, and a lively community presence in the program.

Hundreds of miles away in Connecticut, you’ll find a different kind of marketing and advocacy effort. Three hardworking teachers have turned an agricultural cooperative program into a model of advocacy and communications. Jaunice Edwards, director of the Harris Agriscience and Technology Center near Hartford, Conn., brings a corporate environmental background to the center, which pulls from five school districts around the area for a two-year agriscience program. These students can get science and honors biology credit for high school through the center, and a college residency program lets the students earn college credit, while allowing an area university to get to know the program and students. Other efforts are designed by teachers and students, and largely carried out by students and their community supporters.

“We do a lecture series called ‘The Power of Agriculture,’ and we invite a list of about 12,000 people to come see a series of speakers one afternoon a month, from February to May,” Edwards says. The event includes a meal that incorporates lettuce and other products organically grown by the students, and well-known speakers talk about topics such as buying locally grown food. Leaders from around the area are invited to introduce the speakers. “The mayor of Bloomfield came recently,” Edwards says. “And at our annual FFA banquet, we invite leaders from each town where our students live.”

Area middle school and elementary school students also come and spend the day. “Our students will do an aquaculture unit for the children, and it’s a really fun day. Some of the kids will plant, and others will collect eggs from the chickens. Our students run all the workshops.” The FFA students also visit local elementary schools to educate children about reptiles and how to care for them. These experiences meet the students’ education and FFA obligations, while providing an active and ongoing presence in the communities they serve. It’s even a good way to recruit future FFA members!

Each year, the students prepare a brochure about the program that is mailed to every eighth-grader in the area, and they hold an open house for potential students. At the state level, the group advocates for agricultural education at the governor’s mansion, where the governor holds an annual fundraiser to promote locally grown products.  Many state legislators attend the event, where they find Harris Center students promoting their Farm to Chef and No Child Left Inside programs.

When they’re not out in the community, the students also run their own flower shop. “Every class puts out a brochure each year,” Edwards says. “Last year we did eight weddings!” They also market the program, make money, and fulfill SAE requirements through the shop. “For Valentine’s Day, we literally spend two days here working day and night. We do bouquets, balloons and flowers, and we do a secret valentine program at school,” Edwards says.

The school farm is also a source of income and SAE credits. “We’ve been featured in the news quite a bit. We’re doing a school lunch program, and we were showcased on two television news programs for what we do with our farm. We raise lettuce and basil here, and the cafeteria uses that for their salads and basil pizza,” Edwards says.

Whatever their activities, the students and teachers are sure to inform the schools, community leaders and area media. Whenever possible, the work is planned and implemented by the students themselves. “We try to step back and let the kids take the leadership role,” Edwards says. The group also plans the entire year’s activities in the summer, including their community events and their marketing and advocacy efforts.

Sharing your chapter’s story takes planning, but with some quick and continuous communication that incorporates the efforts of students, community members and alumni, you can truly enhance the success of your students and your program. In so doing, you’ll turn marketing and communications from “one more thing you have to do” into “the one thing you wouldn’t live without.”