Ben Gullicks was an active member of the Finley-Sharon FFA chapter when he was in high school. The experience helped push him to a career in agriculture, both as a John Deere salesman at Valley Plains Equipment and as a farmer in northern Steele County in eastern North Dakota.

So, he was one of many community members who wanted the students of Hope-Page school district to have the same opportunities to experience agriculture education and FFA.

“We need to keep our youth involved in ag and keep them in our smaller communities and keep the communities thriving. There are too many kids who graduate, go to college and you never see them again,” he said. “Ag is the No. 1 industry in North Dakota, and we need to continue to educate and educate the whole population how important it is.”

Hope-Page (North Dakota) High School agriculture teacher Sarah Wendt works on welding skills with senior and FFA president Hailey Schlotfeldt on Nov. 8, 2021.
Cody Rogness / Agweek
Hope-Page (North Dakota) High School agriculture teacher Sarah Wendt works on welding skills with senior and FFA president Hailey Schlotfeldt on Nov. 8, 2021. Cody Rogness / Agweek
Or, as Hope-Page’s second year agriculture teacher Sarah Wendt puts it: “This is one of the most agriculturally rich areas in the state. Why is there not an ag program?”

After many years of behind-the-scenes work in the district and community, Hope-Page started a new agriculture program and new FFA chapter during the 2020-21 school year. Now in its second year, it’s something for which the community and students can be thankful.

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“I’m beyond thankful for it because I know it’s changed me as a person,” said Hope-Page senior Hailey Schlotfeldt.

New program, new teacher

Sarah Wendt is in her second year as Hope-Page (North Dakota) High School's first agriculture teacher and FFA advisor. Photo taken Nov. 8, 2021.
Cody Rogness / Agweek
Sarah Wendt is in her second year as Hope-Page (North Dakota) High School's first agriculture teacher and FFA advisor. Photo taken Nov. 8, 2021. Cody Rogness / Agweek
For Wendt, it’s the why. Why should students know about agriculture if they don’t want to be farmers? Why should they learn about livestock if they just want to be in the shop? Why does math matter to them if they do want to be a farmer?

As the first agriculture teacher at Hope-Page High School, those whys have been particularly important for Wendt. Just out of college and student teaching herself, she was chosen as the teacher to launch the program in the 2020-21 school year, which has meant explaining those whys to students and the community.

After graduating from high school in 2016, Wendt attended North Dakota State University. She had grown up on a hobby farm and always felt a strong connection to agriculture, but she didn’t initially know where to direct that or what her own why was. She started in general agriculture before transitioning to agriculture communications and finally to agriculture education.

She was student teaching in Harvey, North Dakota, during the spring semester of 2020. She had an interview scheduled for March 15, 2020, with the Hope-Page district. That ended up being the week COVID-19 shutdowns started, which meant her interview got moved to a Zoom video call. And the rest of her student teaching became virtual. And her first year of teaching was unlike anything anyone could have prepared her for.

But with support from people like her cooperating teacher during her student teaching and other first year ag teachers, Wendt created an ag curriculum and got to work. Seventh and eighth graders have to take at least a quarter of agriculture education. It’s an elective for high schoolers, with ninth and tenth graders taking broad ag courses and upper class students honing interests in things like agronomy, agriscience and ag mechanics.

An agriculture student at Hope-Page (North Dakota) High School welds on Nov. 8, 2021.
Cody Rogness / Agweek
An agriculture student at Hope-Page (North Dakota) High School welds on Nov. 8, 2021. Cody Rogness / Agweek
The curriculum was developed taking into account both Wendt’s own strengths as well as the needs of the community. The area is strong in grain farming, making agronomy an obvious need, and there are mechanical jobs to be had as well, so ag mechanics could help students prepare for careers.

Despite it being a farming community, not every kid is “super interested, super immersed” in ag, Wendt said. And that’s where those whys come in. She works to find hands-on ways or videos or anything, really, to make a connection between the students’ lives, now and in the future, and agriculture. The connections work both ways as she can show them how things they learn in other subjects, like math or science, also connect to agriculture and real-life needs.

In her first year, Wendt taught two of the five seniors; one of those two is pursuing a career in welding. And that continues to be her why.

“The reason why I really chose this career is because, like, I have a passion for agriculture but also helping others find what’s going to be their passion,” she said.

Gullicks said Wendt has been “instrumental and awesome” in getting students enthused and excited about agriculture, FFA and opportunities for the future.

Schlotfeldt and Mackenzie Motter, a junior, describe Wendt as someone who has pushed them to participate even in things they hadn’t experienced before.

“I couldn’t be more thankful for the teacher that we ended up with,” Motter said. “I don’t think we could have gotten anyone better.”

Vision for the future

Enthusiasm for Hope-Page (North Dakota) High School's new agriculture program is growing in its second year. Teacher Sarah Wendt, standing at right, has been at the helm both years. Photo taken Nov. 8, 2021.
Cody Rogness / Agweek
Enthusiasm for Hope-Page (North Dakota) High School's new agriculture program is growing in its second year. Teacher Sarah Wendt, standing at right, has been at the helm both years. Photo taken Nov. 8, 2021. Cody Rogness / Agweek
A momentous FFA experience for Gullicks in the early 1990s was a trip to Kansas City for the National FFA Convention. He is grateful that his daughter, a junior in high school, got to have the same opportunity this year when Wendt took a small group to the 2021 National FFA Convention in Indianapolis.

“It’s just absolutely amazing” for a small-town teenager to have that experience, he said.

And Wendt said seeing other students on stage at the convention cemented in her students’ minds the realization that they or other Hope-Page students could be up there someday.

Schlotfeldt and Motter also were on the National Convention trip, but they’ve had numerous memorable experiences since joining ag class and FFA last year. Both tell nearly identical experiences about their first livestock judging contests. They hadn’t expected to not be with their teacher and to be split up from each other.

“I've never did anything like that where I was on my own,” Schlotfeldt said.

“I was very nervous,” Motter said.

But in time, and with more contests and FFA events, they’ve found themselves opening up to new experiences and new people. Schlotfeldt recalls going to the North Dakota State FFA Convention last spring, staying at the dorms at NDSU and getting herself to contests and through registration.

“It’s really helped me a lot, honestly,” she said.

The agriculture program at Hope-Page (North Dakota) High School is seeking to teach students about agriculture, as well as prepare them for careers. Photo taken Nov. 8, 2021.
Cody Rogness / Agweek
The agriculture program at Hope-Page (North Dakota) High School is seeking to teach students about agriculture, as well as prepare them for careers. Photo taken Nov. 8, 2021. Cody Rogness / Agweek
Wendt reminds herself to give herself grace as she builds the program and that “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” She knows there will be challenges. In a small school, some students participate in so many activities that available time in their schedules can be short. She encourages them to take opportunities now, even if it means being busy.

“These are experiences you’re never going to get again,” she said.

Motter, chapter secretary, and Schlotfeldt, chapter president, said younger students are getting more enthused about joining FFA after seeing the experiences the students who did join in the first year have had. The experience has affected how they see their own futures, too. Motter always has wanted to be an elementary school teacher and now is considering being an agriculture teacher. Schlotfeldt wants to pursue animal science and equine science degrees en route to becoming a large animal veterinarian.

And Wendt also is thankful for the opportunity she has been given and for her students.

“I’m super grateful and thankful that the Hope-Page community and school took a chance on ag ed,” she said.

Gullicks is thankful Hope-Page’s FFA and agriculture ambitions have come to fruition, and he urges any student to take a chance on the program.

“There are so many things you can learn and try,” he said.