It’s been 22 years since students at Beaman-Conrad-Liscomb-Union-Whitten had an FFA chapter. After the Heartland FFA chapter fizzled out in 1996, Conrad, Iowa students who wanted to join FFA or take an ag course had to head over to neighboring Grundy Center.
“There were many students that wanted to be an FFA member, but could not make it work for multiple reasons to participate in the joint venture with the Grundy Center FFA Chapter,” said Tara Leytham, BCLUW Ag Instructor and FFA Advisor. “When I inquired about a new agricultural education position at GMG, the superintendent inquired if I would consider teaching at BCLUW since the GMG position had been filled.”
Leytham accepted and started working in September 2016 as a half-time agriculture teacher for BCLUW, while continuing to work for the Iowa Farm Bureau as an “Ag in the Classroom” teacher for second and third grade students in the four school districts in Grundy County. It was during this time that Leytham saw an increasing interest from her BCLUW students in starting a FFA chapter.
A year later, Leytham proudly welcomed 33 members into the newly formed chapter. Located in central Iowa, the BCLUW FFA members are no strangers to ag. Of the 33, 15 of them live on a farm and four have grandparents that live on or own a farm.
For those not in ag, BCLUW FFA has focused on leadership training, which Leytham said has been a huge attraction for many students.
“Additionally, we have conducted many demonstrations showing the vast opportunities that are agricultural, but not an activity, business, or career that students would associate to agriculture — food science, horticulture, etc.” Leytham said.
The BCLUW FFA chapter has also been busy securing the next class of members. BCLUW FFA members have been visiting the eighth grade classroom to explain the FFA program and to show the many opportunities the organization can provide to students. At the conclusion of the activity, the chapter had the eighth grade students sign a “letter of intent,” pledging their membership as a freshman.
In addition to growing their membership, the chapter has also received some significant backing from grants and some major donors, including Monsanto, Farm Credit Services, Alliant Energy, Ritchie Industries, and the Iowa Farm Bureau. Leytham said a fantastic testimony to the generosity of the businesses is that they collectively sponsored the purchase of a corduroy jacket for every one of the BCLUW members.
Some of that money is now being used to build a greenhouse and an aquaponics system. The chapter would eventually like to host a farm-to-fork meal, made with everything they produce in their greenhouse and with their aquaponics systems.
BCLUW FFA is just one example of Iowa’s increasing membership year after year. The 2016-2017 membership, with 233 chapters and 14,923 members, was the highest membership the Hawkeye state had ever seen.
Leytham credits an agricultural education teacher mentor program that was started two years ago. Led by experienced agricultural educators, up-and-coming teachers learn how to navigate their way through the first years.
“Due to this leadership I believe that our department continues to grow along with the membership,” Leytham said.
And BCLUW hopes to continue the first year momentum. The chapter plans to offer leadership training, professional development, and hands-on opportunities for the BCLUW students to explore career opportunities and build their personal portfolios.
For other schools that have lost their FFA chapter and would like to get it back up and running? Leytham says it takes determination.
“Stay persistent and passionate in their endeavor,” Leytham said. “The FFA organization offers vast opportunities for students to achieve great accomplishments and a life-long network of friends and colleagues.”