In the 1980s, FFA membership hit a highpoint in Minnesota, says Lavyne Rada, state program manager and regional supervisor for Minnesota FFA. After the 1980s Farm Crisis, numbers dropped sharply.
In Minnesota, that meant the number of FFA members stalled out under 10,000 for at least a decade.
“Now we’re picking up again,” Rada said. The state’s most recent number is a “recent record” of 12,800 — not yet to the level of the 1980s but far higher than the intervening years.
Across the region, the numbers of agriculture education and FFA programs are growing, albeit at different rates and, in some cases, for different reasons.
North Dakota has added about one agriculture program and FFA chapter per year in recent years, according to Craig Kleven, North Dakota agriculture education supervisor. But with the occasional district dropping programs, due often to teacher availability issues or to low numbers of students, the overall number of ag programs in the state has been on a slow uptrend.
Kleven expects that several new chapters could be added by the 2022 State FFA Convention in the spring. He’s grateful for the communities and school administrators who see the value in the programs that will not only prepare students to work in agriculture but also just help educate all students about agriculture.
“In North Dakota, our grassroots are still agriculture,” he said. “And through agriculture education, we are creating tomorrow’s leaders in agriculture, tomorrow’s producers and tomorrow’s employees.”
South Dakota has added 12 new FFA programs since the 2019-20 school year, said South Dakota FFA executive secretary Dani Herring. Some of the schools already had agriculture education, while others are starting from scratch with both ag ed and FFA.
“In the last week, we’ve gotten two requests from two different schools in the Sioux Falls area,” she said.
One is going to start looking for an ag ed teacher and FFA advisor, while the other plans to “vet options” for urban agriculture and start offering ag ed classes. She believes the increase in interest may be because school officials are aware of the good the program can do for their kids.
“They’re seeing what those really successful programs are looking like,” she said.
Minnesota’s growth has been “extraordinary,” Rada said. In the past three years, the state has added 20 new programs, and another four likely will be added by April 2022. The state has seen 105 new ag teachers added in the past three years, about half in completely new positions.
Some of those new positions are due to growth of existing programs; two schools now have five agriculture teachers on staff. Some of the new positions are at completely new ag ed programs, including one the first agriculture education program in Minneapolis, at Edison High School.
And in some situations, the ag ed teachers are hired to teach courses in other areas. In Minnesota, agriculture education teachers are able to teach economics, physics and chemistry. If they are willing to jump through “a couple extra hoops,” they can teach art, such as welding or floral design, Rada said. One taught math as an ag-based applied math course, and science instructions abound in agriculture. Rada herself taught food chemistry while teaching in Hutchinson, Minnesota, and the ability to explain chemistry through the lens of something like how baking soda works in a recipe made the concept less abstract, she said.
“We’re the original STEM,” Rada said. “We’ve been teaching agriculture as the context to teach science and math for 100 years.”
She also knows of at least two districts in Minnesota seeking teachers, and she believes there isn’t so much a shortage of ag teachers as there is an exploding demand for them.
“We’re growing so fast that we’re creating our shortage,” she said.