Iowa’s Top Ag Official Visits One of Iowa’s Top Ag Education Programs
When a squad from the most diverse and urban school district in as agricultural a state as Iowa leads the pack at the Future Farmers of America State Leadership Conference and qualifies for the FFA national convention, ag officials sit up and take notice.
So it was that Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey paid a visit this morning to the Eden on County Line Road that houses the DMPS Horticulture and Animal Science program. Northey was treated to a guided tour of the facilities conducted by program students, all of whom are enthusiastic ambassadors for an extremely hands-on curriculum that is offered under the administrative auspices of Central Campus even though it sits literally at the edge of the district. In fact, it’s a two-bus commute to class each day for students from each of the district’s five comprehensive high schools as well as several surrounding suburban districts.
Northey was impressed. Several students told him they now plan to major in related fields in college and he told them, “There will be kids from rural areas in those programs who won’t have the direct experience that you’re getting here.”
In the greenhouse students were busy watering inventory and manning cash registers for the program’s annual plant sale that began on April 12 and runs through June 8. That effort typically generates in excess of $50K each year, revenues that are plowed back into the program in the form of perks like expense-paid research trips to Europe for kids who fulfill certain work commitments and otherwise adhere to standards developed by Craig Nelson who, along with Jacob Hunter, coordinates the wide-ranging operation. Nelson oversees horticulture and Hunter heads up animal science. Both were reared on Iowa farms and are Iowa State University graduates.
“When I started here about six years ago we had some concerns,” Nelson said. “Absenteeism was too high and there were some behavioral issues too. So I worked up some rules about getting to class and appropriate language and things like that. I told them if they got in line and pitched in with all the work this place requires they could earn themselves a trip overseas. We don’t have any of those old problems anymore.”
Now they have a new batch, like waiting lists for some of the classes and enough resources to keep, there’s no other way to say it, growing. Approximately 140 students are registered in the two-year program. First Years must enroll in both areas. Second Years have the flexibility to specialize. Graduates are planning careers as everything from farmers to veterinarians to zookeepers to landscape architects.
It takes a lot to maintain such an expansive classroom. Besides the plant sale the program also generates proceeds by raising, showing and selling livestock. The greenhouse was originally built with a federal grant. And there are community partners including Pioneer Hybrid, Meredith Corporation, the Iowa Pork Producers and Kemin Industries who contribute. There are also plans in the works to help the program more formally promote and market itself. In the meantime it relies on practically unanimous word of mouth endorsements from its students and, as of this morning, the state Secretary of Agriculture who seemed as pleased to be out of his office as his hosts were to be out of their four-walled classrooms.