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GALLAGHER: Making their mark

October 7, 2018
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A group of five women who teach agriculture classes and direct FFA programs at high schools in Northwest Iowa gathered for a photo during an FFA soils judging contest east of Moville, Iowa, last week. From left: Betsy Schoelerman of Clay Central-Everly, Kylie Miller of Western Christian, Hannah Barnes of Washington High School in Cherokee, Michele Wagner of Hartley-Melvin-Sanborn and Susan Groth of East Sac County.

HINTON, Iowa -- Hinton High School Principal Betty Wendt walked into a education committee meeting at Morningside College in early August 2016. She met Dr. Thomas Paulsen, head of the college’s ag department, as he departed a previous session.

“We chit-chatted for a bit and I told him how we’d (Hinton) like to hire an ag teacher,” said Wendt. “We were set to do so in 2015, but we couldn’t find one.”

It would be Hinton’s first such dedicated professional. The new hire would also get a new FFA chapter at Hinton off the ground.

Paulsen said he had the ideal candidate, an Iowa State University graduate he advised during her student-teaching assignment, Stephanie Bass, who was home in Colebrook, Connecticut, attempting to decide whether to teach or enter the private sector.

“I was raised in a small town in Connecticut, predominantly dairy and field corn,” Bass said. “I came to Iowa State because I knew I’d major in something in agriculture and when I Googled ‘top ag colleges in the U.S.,’ it was Iowa State that always popped up.”

Bass connected with Wendt. They Skyped an interview and Bass landed the job. She traveled to Iowa the following week, found a place to live and, that same day, began her teaching career, sowing seeds for the first Hinton High School FFA Chapter.

Bass isn’t alone. Across Northwest Iowa there are more than 20 women piloting agriculture departments in their respective high schools. A number of them have also founded FFA chapters as participation in FFA rises across the state.

“There were 14 of us who graduated in the ag education department in 2016 at Iowa State and only one was a guy,” said Sam Schroeder, who, like Bass, started the ag education and FFA chapter at MMCRU High School in nearby Marcus, Iowa, two years ago.

Schroeder listed the following as recent ISU grads, all women, who started FFA chapters at their high schools in recent years: Hannah Barnes at Washington High School in Cherokee, Kylie Miller at Western Christian High School in Hull; and Randi Koehler at Lawton-Bronson High School in Lawton.

Elsewhere, women direct these Northwest Iowa chapters: Shauna Kill, West Lyon; Betsy Harwood, Sioux Central; Betsy Schoelerman and Liz Naviaux, Clay Central-Everly; Danielle James, Le Mars Community; Paige Whitney, OABCIG; Molly Bomgaars, George-Little Rock; Michele Wagner, Hartley-Melvin-Sanborn; Susan Groth and Larissa Rupnow, East Sac County; Molli Griffin, Kingsley-Pierson; Emily Lair, Estherville-Lincoln Central; Jamie Haugen, Alta-Aurelia; Crystal Nieland, Newell-Fonda; Caryn Robinson, Graettinger-Terril/Ruthven-Ayrshire; Lisa Hurd, Storm Lake St. Marys; and Angie Joyce, Emmetsburg.

Ellen Doese, a 1983 Iowa State graduate, was named the National FFA Teacher of the Year when Bass and Schroeder graduated from Iowa State. When Doese was hired at Wapsie Valley High School, it was reported she was the seventh woman to be hired in that capacity in Iowa.

“Teaching (in this field) used to be mostly men,” Bass said. “But, I’ve heard that most men are able to make more money working out in industry, that might be a reason.”

Jon Wimmer, the FFA adviser serving MVAOCOU High School in Mapleton, said the reason for a growing number of women in the field might be directed to the high schools themselves. “It could be that more girls in high school are now involved in FFA and they’re going up the pipeline,” he said.

Nationally, the FFA reports females represent more than 45 percent of the organization’s membership. It wasn’t until 1969 that the FFA, which began in 1928, offered full membership privileges to girls.

“It’s becoming more of a normal thing,” said Schroeder, who indicated the more interesting aspect might be the prevalence of FFA chapters over who might be leading them.

“The FFA organization has become so well-known and presents so many opportunities for kids,” said Schroeder. “It was hard no to have a program in such an ag-dominated area like this.”

Schroeder, who participated in livestock judging and other activities while prepping at Hudson High School in eastern Iowa, said the old Meriden-Cleghorn and Remsen-Union school districts had FFA chapters years ago. One or both chapters ceased due to consolidation, budget cuts or dwindling interest in the wake of the 1980s Farm Crisis.

Schroeder learned of the interest in starting at program two years ago at newly consolidated MMCRU. She was asked to state her case for the implementation of agriculture classes and the starting of an FFA chapter when the school boards met that year. She was joined by community member Shirley Schroeder in making the case.

“I talked about why I think MMCRU needed an FFA chapter,” Sam Schroeder said. “And then they ended up starting the program.”

Schroeder applied for the new position and secured it weeks later. This week, she’ll venture south of Marcus into a 5-acre soybean tract FFA students planted and monitored over the growing season. Students have sold half the crop already, learning how to track upward and downward trajectories of commodity prices.

“Half the crop was tilled and half was planted in no-till,” Schroeder explained. “We also buried a couple of pairs of cotton underwear in the soil in both the no-till and the tilled areas. We’re going to see if there are more micro-organisms in the no-till as they’ll eat up a lot of that cotton.”

Schroeder, who teaches eight classes, has also overseen the construction of a greenhouse at the high school for plant sciences classes and fundraisers. Last week, she and her students set up an Aquaponic system for a tilapia project, among others. “Kids are picking seeds and growing bedding plants they’ll market and sell,” she said.

Ultimately, Schroeder said she wants MMCRU students to hone their agricultural skills and curiosities while learning of ever-growing opportunities that arise across Northwest Iowa.

“We’re trying to help kids find reasons to want to come back,” she said. “This is our way of saying, ‘Go to college and then come back. There are jobs around here.’”

Bass, the Hinton teacher who teetered on entering the railroad industry to work in marketing or dispatch, stepped out in front of the crowd gathered at the Blackhawks volleyball match on Thursday night. She accepted a grant award of $10,000 from Monsanto, money she’ll earmark for supplies and the Curriculum in Ag Science Education (CASE). Her hands-on instruction, developed with CASE, has helped Bass boost her numbers from 40 students two years ago to 75 this fall.

“Private industry crossed my mind as it does for most young teachers,” she said. “But then I ask myself: Where am I making the most impact? Where do I enjoy waking up most each day? Right now, those answers are in teaching. Ag class, for me, was the class that got me up and excited for school each morning. I’d love to take that type of student and help them pursue their passion for agriculture, helping them to see what it does in our world.”

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