Urban opportunity? Iowa FFA's Executive Director discusses how FFA is growing by appealing to both rural and urban students | The Spokesman Speaks Podcast, Episode 25
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Welcome to Episode 25 of The Spokesman Speaks podcast. In this episode, Iowa FFA Executive Director Scott Johnson discusses FFA's recent growth (in Iowa and around the country) and how the organization has appealed to both rural and urban students (with new chapters popping up in places like Sioux City, Ames and Clear Lake). The episode also includes snippets from our October 7 (Episode 23) interview with Farm Bureau Health Plan Vice President Steve Kammeyer. You can listen to Kammeyer's complete interview back in Episode 23 or visit https://www.iowafbhealthplan.com/ to learn about how some Iowans are saving thousands of dollars on their health coverage with the Farm Bureau Health Plan.
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Narrator: Since 1934, Iowa's farmers have turned to the Iowa Farm Bureau Spokesman as their trusted news source. Now, The Spokesmen Speaks. Listen in and hear from leading experts on topics important to farmers and agriculture. Now here's your host, Laurie Johns.
Laurie Johns: Welcome to the 25th episode of The Spokesman Speaks Podcast. This is our November 4th edition. This week's episode features an interview with Scott Johnson, the Executive Director of Iowa FFA. There's never been a more exciting time to be involved in FFA and it's not just rural students who are getting in on the action. Three of the newest Iowa FFA chapters are in Sioux City, Ames and Clear Lake. So we're going to chat with Scott about how FFA is piquing the interest of those kids in town. You know, the more urban crowd. Before we do that, we know that many of you are considering your health coverage options right now during the open enrollment period. So that's why I'd like to take just a minute or so to remind you about the Farm Bureau Health Plan. It's a relatively new comprehensive health plan that's saving some Iowans thousands of dollars. In our October 7th edition of the podcast, that's episode 23 for those of you who are scrolling through your favorite podcast app, we talked with Steve Kammeyer who is Vice President of the Iowa Farm Bureau Health Plan. I'd encourage you to go back and listen to that episode to get all the details on the Farm Bureau Health Plan, but if you're short on time, here are a couple of clips from Steve's interview. First question, who's benefiting most from the Farm Bureau Health Plan?
Steve Kammeyer: The ones who are going to benefit the most from this plan, frankly, are those that can't afford the type of coverage that they have today. Those would include folks that might purchase an ACA policy, but simply because of their income do not qualify for subsidies. It could be folks that are employer covered by an employer plan, but the employer plan doesn't cover them or doesn't cover their dependents and it makes it too expensive. We had a great example of a couple of teachers each work for a different school district. Each school district paid 100% of the single rate for their health insurance. They had a baby and one of them had to add the baby to the family plan. Well the school's only offered an individual or a family plan. To add that baby to one of their plans was going to cost over a thousand dollars. So that helps those folks that wouldn't otherwise be able to afford that, be able to get a plan that makes sense for them. So it's really those that don't have access to the subsidies under the Affordable Care Act, those that don't have access to affordable coverage because either their employer or their spouse's employer doesn't pay that much towards the coverage. And then the third group is those that are either uninsured currently or covered under either short term policies or some of these Christian sharing ministry plans. Our plans are much more comprehensive than those are and they provide a much more secure long-term solution for those folks.
Laurie Johns: Does that sound like you? If so, I bet you'd like to know how much you might save through the Farm Bureau Health Plan. We asked Steve about that too.
Steve Kammeyer: On average, we see that the Farm Bureau Health Plan rates are about half of the un-subsidized ACA rates. And when I say unsubsidized ACA rates, I mean after someone qualifies for those tax credits. So for those folks that qualify for tax credits and qualify for subsidies, the ACA plans are a great solution, but we have a lot of our members that don't qualify for those. So those are the folks who are going to be helped the most. We have examples of couples that have saved $15 to $16,000 a year on their premiums. We had a young lady here in central Iowa that saved almost $6,000 a year on her premiums. We've seen people literally cut their premiums in half.
Laurie Johns: Well, hey, how does that sound? If you'd like to learn more about the Farm Bureau Health Plan, head out to IowaFBHealthPlan.com and of course be sure to check out our entire interview with Steve Kammeyer back in episode 23 of The Spokesman Speaks Podcast. Okay, now it's time to talk about the amazing success of the Iowa FFA. I know we have a bunch of proud FFA alumni in our listening audience. Spokesman reporter Corey Munson recently dropped by the FFA Enrichment Center in Ankeny to speak with Iowa FFA Executive Director Scott Johnson. They talked all about FFAs recent growth and its success and engaging both rural and urban students. Let's listen in.
Corey Munson: So can you just kind of fill us in a little bit on the current state of FFA in Iowa?
Scott Johnson: Sure. As of the previous membership year we wrapped up with 242 FFA chapters, 15,642 members. The 15,000 plus members is a membership record in Iowa and that's actually part of a national trend as well with over 700,000 members nationwide. And that is also a membership record on the national side. In recent years, our membership growth has been a trend, to the point where, you know, within the last decade our membership has grown somewhere between 20% and 25%. Which you think about an organization that's been around for 90 years that's pretty significant for a decade’s worth of growth. Kind of earlier on in this last decade we're some significant strides in membership growth. We've kind of moderated a little bit in recent years. I think part of that also has to do with our organization statewide is still quite heavy on the number of FFA, ag ed FFA programs that exist in rural school districts. If you think about K-12 student populations in rural school districts, that population is shrinking. So we had a combination there initially of a spike in student enrollment, so a higher percentage of students enrolling in rural districts, but then some of our more urban or higher enrollment districts that have been looking to, you know, add programs, that's also contributed, to our membership growth. And so at some point there's some physical limitations. You know, in our smaller rural school districts, we can't continue to trend towards a higher percentage of us shrinking student population. So now our more moderate or less aggressive growth is more about it, you know, are we adding more programs? We've added a number of FFA chapters over about the last decade or so. Our net gain since 2013 is about 25 to 30 chapters. So a little more than 10%, which once again is pretty significant by our standards and in terms of historical context that is significant. So new chapters to get started, they need time to grow, mature, kind of establish the cycle and the local culture as well. And that will play influence on what our potential membership growth could be over the next, you know, five to 10 years as well. Our aspirations would be that, you know, some of these newer programs that might start with 20, 30 members eventually grow into something that's 60, 70, 80 members who knows, you know, maybe more. And that takes time for that to happen.
Corey Munson: So how many chapters have you added this year?
Scott Johnson: Five new programs officially chartered since the start of the school year with one to two more we're still looking forward to working with yet.
Corey Munson: Can you briefly describe the process and what's involved in developing and adding a new chapter to a school district?
Scott Johnson: I like how you start the question with briefly. But I will. Actually on this one to start with, there are a lot of complicated layers to it, but as far as checking the boxes, it starts with basically three things. Coursework that is agricultural in nature. A teacher that is licensed in agriculture to teach it and at least 10 students and want to be in FFA that are taking those courses. And I make that sound really, really simple. When I say that's it, obviously there was a lot more to it, right? Trying to establish a program if you're going to offer this year over year over year, well then there's additional coursework to offer. There's obviously classroom laboratory facilities and maybe extended contract days for their involvement outside of regular school days, summer activities, county state fair exhibiting, community activities and connections and so on. So there's obviously more components to it, but in short, you know, it's the coursework, the licensed educator and enough students and you can start. Now continuing beyond that, obviously it takes more. And those are the other bigger pieces where, you know, stakeholders within a district have to really figure out what that looks like and have a plan in place. So we have some school districts out there that are seriously considering and are exploring adding an ag ed FFA program. So we have aspirations of having more new chapters next year and the year after that. But there's, you know, if there's community interest there and support there, that's great. But there's usually some additional strategy that's going on that's hopefully occurring between the school districts officials and the community patrons that are wanting to support the program to really figure out, hey, we want this to be a long-term sustainable program, not just a flash in the pan. So like we got it, check the box, hey, we did it right. What are we making sure that we have the facilities there that draw the students in that provide a quality program and education. Those are the more complicated pieces that take more soul searching, funding, planning, buy in and so on.
Corey Munson: Do you want to talk a little bit about FFA in urban settings? I believe you mentioned yesterday that of the top 30 school districts in the state of Iowa, 10 currently have FFA programs. So is a move into more urban environments a plan or is it more of just a, this is a natural extension of what the organization now represents?
Scott Johnson: If we think about FFA and other CTSOs or career and technical student organizations like FCCLA, FPLA and so on that are directly associated with high school, and now more so middle school slash high school education programs, our target audience are preadolescence and adolescence. So, you know, if as an organization, if we're focusing on what is developmentally appropriate for 13 to 17 year old students, that really technically doesn't have a lot of difference between or among different demographic groups, rural, urban, male, female, choose your, choose your culture, religion, race, and you know, what have you. So if we're really focusing on programming that is developmentally appropriate and we're doing it right to attract and pique the interest of students, then it really doesn't matter where the students are coming from in terms of a school background. So if we're doing that right, then we're offering something that students are interested in and want to be involved in, and that's regardless of what their agricultural background is, are or is not. Then to take that a step further, you think about agricultural content. Obviously there is a difference based on student background, whether that's, you know, by school district or geographic location or once again, culture, race, religion, et cetera. That's where there's a critical component of the local instructor and working with the local program in identifying, you know, the, the student population that they are working with and then having coursework that has a delicate balance of what the students are interested in versus what industry says, where the demand and opportunities are in terms of a career. And that's a tough piece to be able to do because agriculture education, just like basically most other career and technical education programs, is an elective in schools. So the ag instructor might see an importance in offering a certain curriculum or program because there's opportunities out there in the global ag industry, but they're not the kinds of things that pique the interest of a 14 year old student. So you gotta kind of play the balance there because if you don't offer something that puts students in the program, you won't offer the program at all because schools will look at numbers on paper and say, well, you don't have the enrollment to justify your existence here. We're going to have to cut your program. So there's pressure there on teachers to be able to do that. So across the profession, if we're doing the right thing and staying connected with industry and offering leadership opportunities for students that are developmentally appropriate, then naturally we should have students engaged, involved and then that in turn would grow the organization strategically for the organization. Sure. It would be nice to have an increased presence of our programming in the larger school districts within our state. Back to what I mentioned before, you know, rural school district population is a shrinking population. Inherently at some point, statute of limitations is going to start pulling back on what our volume of membership is going to be like from these school districts. Our opportunities for growth really ally in two different pathways in our larger school districts in our urban centers or population centers in the state and expanding more opportunities and programming into our middle school population, which is occurring. The extent to which we commit resources to that is somewhat limited. We're directly associated with public education. That's a little different than the private sector in terms of trying to establish, you know, growth in markets in whatever, you know, school district budgets are a pie chart and there's not necessarily a saleable product. So there isn't, you know, resources necessarily committed to marketing and research and development and that kind of thing. I mean they're kinda landlocked geographically. They have their allocation in accordance to state funding equations and whatever. So more often than not, if we're trying to approach schools about starting a program or if there's patrons within a school district that say, hey, you know, what would it take to get an FFA or ag ed program started the conversation starts with school district officials and trying to figure out well what's this look like in a budget? And a lot of times the immediate response, as you probably know as well, if we're going to offer this, we're going to have to cut that. Well then that pits two programs with stakeholder interests against each other and then it becomes adversarial. And that's really something we would prefer to avoid in working with this process.
Corey Munson: Can you kind of muse a little bit on just kind of the differences between an urban chapter and a rural chapter? Well, when it comes to kind of anything from set up to programs offered, you know, just in your experience looking out over the spectrum that we have in the state.
Scott Johnson: Demographically, just based on student enrollment numbers in a school system, I'll just start there. In terms of school size, one of the cultural pieces you think about, if I use kind of like athletic association terminology, like class A, 1A, maybe some 2A, you know, where student class sizes are 20, 30 students per grade up through 60, 70 students per grade. You have students that are involved in everything and you're as a school activity, you're basically competing against other activities. And you got these students that are showing up at like 6:30 in the morning at school and they don't go home till, you know, 9:30 at night. They're sneaking in supper sometime, you know, over ever during their quote unquote pique, you know, season. And there's a lot of sharing of students there and but that being said, if you have an established Ag FFA program, your culture is probably well known within the hallways of the school system. In an urban program where you start talking over 80, maybe a hundred, you know, I've gotta be a little bit lax on terms of urban, but just like 3A schools, which don't necessarily occur in urban areas. They could be still in rural areas of the state, but you start talking 70, 80 students, which is really a larger 2A, up and beyond that. Especially when you get up to, you know, 200 plus students per grade. Now all of a sudden the FFA culture, like most other school clubs or activities isn't necessarily known amongst all students. You don't know all of your classmates, there are fewer students that are involved in say so many multiple activities. They really specialize in two or three. So there's accessibility there in terms of teachers working with students on extracurricular cocurricular activities and they kind of have the opportunity to say, have an afterschool practice because the students they're working with aren't on the football team, on the volleyball team, like this time of year for example. So it's a different culture and you have your own like little micro culture within the school system, just like a lot of other clubs do. ag ed, you know, curriculum wise, you know, everything about educational pedagogy is about connecting to prior experiences and prior knowledge. So, you know, a school district that maybe has more traditional production agriculture, the concepts that are being taught in say animal science might still be in the context of large livestock, you know, poultry or whatever. Whereas maybe in an urban district, well, what are the students likely connected to? Likely a pet. But anatomically in the science concepts are still the same. So digestion, reproduction, animal health, growth and development. Those principles are basically universal for the most part across a lot of different species of livestock in particular. But then when you compare and contrast, you know, livestock, poultry and so on, those concepts are still taught. But the naming of it is different. So, you know, there's sometimes it's the, similar to other products that you see on the store, right. Marketing angles in this new and improved or certified this or whatever because there was a target audience involved. How courses are maybe named or identified in a course handbook are different because it's trying to speak the language of what the students know and can connect to. Because if they can't connect to it, they're likely not going to show interest in it.
Corey Munson: And I guess in my own life, just comparing, obviously going up to Ames today and talking to Emily, seeing a little bit of what she has as a new chapter. But in my previous life I ran a paper in Marion. And so Linn-Mar's FFA program of course was very noted, well regarded in the community and was award winning on many levels. So I think that especially when you look at Lin-Mar, it's a larger school district is growing school district, it's very urban, but they have a thriving FFA program. So you see examples out there where these programs are extremely successful in urban settings. So can you speak about how urban programs have been successful? Where have they found success? Like specifics as far as like, okay, are there specific activities that they've undertaken that you can point to as a great example of, oh, here's one group in a Metro that's done something that really stands out to me as something, something great.
Scott Johnson: Oh gosh, that's a difficult question just in part because of the diversity of programs across the state. You know, if you go to 10 different programs, you're going to see 10 different cultures that engage students, that have their lists of activities, that is their bread and butter. And I think that's what's unique. But so it's unique and also a challenge within Iowa because exchanging ideas is great. But then considering culture and resources and whatever, you know, you mentioned, you know, Linn-Mar and when Linn-Mar started as a program and you know, or built, you know, their school or whatever, you know, they weren't, I don't think even in the city limits at that time. And then of course, obviously the Metro area has kind of grown around them. So when I think about that example, you know, a school that gets established that establishes a program and they're maybe not the size then as what they are today. You know, I think about Lin-Mar, I think Gilbert to an extent, comes to mind too, you know, a school that has a program that established themselves as maybe a program in a smaller school system at the time. And then as the school district grew, so that their program, but so did their curriculum and offerings in and whatever. And those are really school systems at that point that I kind of place some value in terms of being able to show, and really probably Southeast Polk probably fits that mold too if I really think about it historically, is that they've grown into some of those things and now they become some examples of school systems that we would point to because they have enrollment numbers that are similar to some of these other school systems that don't have a program that we're having communication with because sometimes the school officials with really any school system, but obviously if we're talking larger school systems in particular, their connection to ag ed programs and what it is maybe is somewhat limited. So we have to be able to show them something. And really part of it is just showing, hey, wait, you know, I had one administrator tell me at one point in a meeting a few years ago, they're just their rationale for maybe not looking into it was because they didn't have a lot of rural classified land within their school district. And I'm thinking, whoa, that's a completely, like I wasn't prepared for that response because if we're embedded in the industry, like we are, you know, we see agriculture everywhere and agricultural literacy is really important and we're wired that way. But for some of our patrons with no connection to agriculture whatsoever, the dialect has to come in at a completely different angle. Similar to naming courses, you know, for students to pique interest. The conversation with school officials and adults has to come in a different way too. If we tried to speak to them our speak, they're probably not going to connect with it or resonate and at that point, it's not about insulting their intelligence either because you know, they have a background and expertise in areas that we don't. And if they were to speak to us with their speak, we're not going to connect with it or buy in either. So the activities being done, it's really hard to connect with, you know, Linn-Mar for years, and I think they still do, you know, if it's the greenhouse, the aquaculture program or agriscience, you know, research involvement, you know, I think Southeast Polk's and their involvement with the Animal Learning Center and some of the things that they've done with the case, you know, a case curriculum and things associated with that. And you can go around to different programs and each one hand kind of has their unique niche within the school system. There are certain things that will be a draw to some schools that won't be a draw to other schools. And the best we can do is just try to show kind of a buffet of options because there is a little bit of autonomy from school district to school district. And what we don't know is what other curriculum they're already offering through other programs. In agriculture that crossover sometimes occurs into their science departments. So you think ecology, natural resources, maybe biotechnology that could occur in an agricultural context, but could be already existing courses in their science department. The other crossover is industrial ed. So you think metals and welding and small gas engines, maybe something construction related and so on. Those might already be embedded into an industrial ed curriculum. So there's some crossover at times too. So it's difficult to put together a here's a one size fits all. And I didn't even mention, you know, food science and food products and processing that may or may not get into family, consumer science world.
Corey Munson: So it's a very adaptable club or organization. Then they can fit the needs and provide something to students no matter what the background is kind of what I'm taking away from this.
Scott Johnson: Yeah. So you go back to the previous question, what does it take to start a program? Well, you know, I gave you the three check boxes, but then it's like, well what course? You know what do you already have? Ag education in terms of teaching is a teacher shortage area, along with a lot of high school teaching areas. So you want a quality educator in the program or else you will struggle to have a quality program. So how do we attract a quality educator? Well, it probably starts with offering full-time employment. Well, if you don't have full time agricultural coursework, what else? What else do they teach or do you consider middle-school exploratory? Well, what does that look like? So those are the other factors that play in. You think about something that's adaptable, what additional endorsements might the teacher have? Or they might even have somebody on staff in house that is teaching in some other program, but they also have that ag, you know, 5-12 agriculture education endorsement or you know, concurrent enrollment college courses or who knows what. And that's, you know, those are those other components of, well, what do you already have? Do you have another school district that will share with you and do two halftime, you know, days to get started or something? Something to get the foot in the door and try to offer a quality program day one and have that program grow kind of genuinely, you know, our authentically on its own through student enrollment. And you know, student enrollment in programs kind of shifts in culture gets established and then it just eventually becomes absorbed as its regular culture and budget and so on. For schools with somewhat steady enrollment, that's probably the angle, for schools with growing enrollment, you know, our angle a little more there is instead of offering more of the same, would you consider adding diversity to your program offerings as opposed to more of the same?
Corey Munson: Is there anything else you want that we forgot to talk about regarding FFA in urban or rural settings? You know just from an educational standpoint.
Scott Johnson: Sure. You know, if I use the buzzword college and career ready, right? Yes, there's value in students being connected with agricultural literacy and learning, you know, agriculturally, you know, science related content. But you know, with the industry professionals that are out there, yes, the content knowledge is good, but those leadership components that are learned through FFA experiences are really, really valuable. Those 21st century skills are you know, considered like they use the old school terminology will be soft skills, are transferable skills. The idea that, you know, somebody comes in as beginning professional, they know how to communicate, they know how to follow a schedule, they know how to plan events. They have some grasp of what they know and what they don't know and they get into the context of wherever they're working at and then their employer trains them on some of the content or subject matter that is specific to them. But the combination of leadership skills and development from experiences in FFA and then the content of subject matter within an ag ed program or really any CT program for that matter, that's a good combination that makes students highly employable. And so, you know, in terms of college and career ready, I, you know in my biased opinion, why wouldn't you have an ag ed FFA program? Yeah. That was my shameless plug.
Corey Munson: Well, and once again in my, it seems like this is, if nothing else, even if it's just providing them a real basic idea of some of these ag issues, what it's really doing is preparing them to succeed and preparing them to get plugged into future opportunities.
Scott Johnson: Yeah. You know, the 21st century and transferable skills and basic content knowledge. I forget what resources out there that talks about this, but basically, you know, when the student start seventh grade, by the time they complete whatever education they're completing ish for certification, half the job opportunities that are out there, by the time they're out there for the job market don't exist yet. So you know, you start thinking about career plans that these students were supposed to do through high school and whatever, you know, if we're treating that like a checkbox of, well I want to do this when I get out there, that's dangerous territory because we're essentially ignoring half of the job opportunities that we don't even know are out there. So is it really about identifying a job or is it really thinking about a career that is associated with a skill set that I'm interested in and then let's work with the students to develop that skillset. And then they have a chance to go through where those opportunities are and become employable and, you know, maybe not pick up unnecessary student debt pursuing an education that they may or may not need for a job that they may or may not want to pursue and then get stuck with 30 years of student loans to pay off or something along those lines. Like, you know, career exploration during college is a really, really expensive experience. So what can we help them do before that to make more informed decisions?
Laurie Johns: Well, that's pretty neat. We appreciate Scott's time and we want to congratulate the entire FFA organization on its success. Now before we wrap up this episode of The Spokesman Speaks Podcast, I want to remind you that registration is now open for Iowa Farm Bureau's 2019 annual meeting. That will be December 3rd and 4th in Des Moines. We'll have award winning entertainment and a keynote address by Chris Norton. Now you remember Chris is the former Luther College football player who suffered a devastating spinal cord injury. That was back in 2010. He was given a 3% chance of walking again, but what happened next is truly amazing and you'll want to hear all about it at our annual meeting. To learn more or to get registered just to go to iowafarmbureau.com or contact your county Farm Bureau. That's all for this podcast episode. Be sure to tune in for our next episode on November 18th. Until next time, thanks for reading The Spokesman. Thanks for all the great stories and the inspiration and thanks for listening to The Spokesman Speaks.
Narrator: Thank you for listening to The Spokesman Speaks, a podcast by Iowa Farm Bureau. Check out more podcasts and articles from The Spokesman at IowaFarmBureau.com/Spokesman. You can also find and subscribe to The Spokesman Speaks Podcast in the Apple Podcasts app, Google Play, and other popular podcast apps. We appreciate your ratings and reviews and welcome your feedback at Podcast@ifbf.org
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