The fact that 89% of students at Southeast Warren Schools (SEW) are involved with the district’s FFA program doesn’t get past those in the community who have marveled at the program’s rapid development.

Just ask Brandon Smith of Smith Squared Farms, a 1996 SEW graduate who was instrumental in the development of an FFA alumni chapter 12 years ago with the goal of supporting ag-related programming.

He’ll tell you about the pride the community has when hearing about ag-program successes.

“It is one of the most participated in chapters in the United States,” Smith says. “We didn’t have anything like this” back in the mid-1990s when he was in school. “This chapter holds a pretty big place in my heart.”

While not every student aspires to be a farmer, the majority at SEW engage in agricultural classes, setting the stage for potential careers in education, communication or animal science. 

The program emphasizes life skills crucial for any profession, focusing on responsibility, communication and leadership.

“How can we best develop the program to really help kids gain skills that they’re going to use no matter what field they go into?” explains Ag/FFA Advisor Alex Rodgers. “How do we teach a person to be successful later in life — responsibility, communication, following directions, or being good leaders no matter what their path?

“We stress that above everything else.”

Rodgers, an Iowa State University ag education major who came to SEW directly from college, didn’t anticipate staying for more than a couple years in his role. But eight years later, he finds himself excited about the growth and future opportunities at one of Iowa’s premier ag programs.

“We have 197 members … the fifth largest program in the state,” Rodgers says. “We want everybody to feel included and be part of FFA.”

PICTURED ABOVE: More than $40,000 has been raised for the construction of a barn addition at Southeast Warren. PHOTO / CONRAD SCHMIDT

Community support

There’s no better example of community backing than what occurred at the Warren County Fair in July 2023.

SEW junior Spencer Wallace teamed up with Smith to raise, care for and show Smith’s donated steer at the fair, with the goal of raising funds at the fair auction for a new SEW FFA cattle barn.

The ag program had recently constructed an animal learning center at the school’s Liberty Center location, tailored to provide students with space to raise animals to show at the fair, and was looking to build an addition for raising cattle to supplement the pigs, sheep, chickens, rabbits and ducks in the adjoining facility.

While many kids come from farm backgrounds, some students don’t have the facilities or land to care for animals but want to learn about and participate in showing animals at the fair. This past year, eight of 17 exhibitors were first-time fair participants thanks to the new animal learning center facility.

So that’s what makes what happened at the 2023 fair still a hot topic of discussion.

“Honestly, I couldn’t believe it,” says Wallace. “The steer sold four times … I was up there for 45 minutes, and in that time, we raised $32,000. It was surreal … When I walked out of there, Brandon was waiting with a big hug.”

An anonymous donor purchased the steer and donated it back for re-auction. It was purchased and donated three more times to raise the funds. It was community spirit in action.

In total, between the auction earnings, raffling off the meat and additional donations, more than $40,000 was garnered for the cattle barn addition.

“It’s phenomenal,” says Smith. “The support this community gives … it’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen … Let’s see what we can do for the FFA chapter.”

Future plans

To see the ag program’s growth from 12 years ago when the alumni FFA group was formed to now is special, with Rodgers at the helm, administrative support and community involvement, says Smith.

“The goal has been to keep ag classes and the FFA in school,” he explains. School budget cuts in other Iowa districts have led to elimination of programs. “We didn’t want to see that happen.”

The construction of small pens on school grounds, community members offering barn space and the recent completion of the animal learning center exemplify the community’s dedication. 

Currently, the 36-foot by 56-foot barn addition is under construction, set to provide valuable space for raising cattle and hands-on learning opportunities. There will be paddock space, gated pens and an open south end prime for raising cattle. Students will be able to study hands-on, educated on record-keeping, feeding, showing, and interviews.

“Instead of just looking at the computer, they can walk 30 feet out here and be hands on in that barn,” says Smith. “There’s no better tool.”

Rodgers outlines future plans, including the development of a poultry project to involve more students and adding breeding animals to supplement the market-based approach. The overarching aim remains providing diverse opportunities for students to acquire valuable skills through practical experiences in agriculture.

“How can we give some of these kids who maybe don’t have those opportunities because they live in town?” Rodgers says. “How do we provide them an opportunity to gain skills from working with livestock … from working in the greenhouse on plant science or research?”