Fueled by her love for dairy farming, this young teacher hopes to make a difference in her students’ lives.
It was show day at the county fair when 8-year-old Olivia Zurcher entered the ring with her 4-H hog for the first time. Olivia, a third-generation dairy farmer from Basin City, Washington, recalls the frustration she experienced and how that set her on a path of determination. When she could have given up, she pressed forward, saying it was that moment that she knew she wanted to be a part of agriculture for the rest of her life.
“My pig was acting up; I knew I could have done better. In my mind, I was saying, ‘This is never going to happen again,’” she remembers. “That wake-up call really helped me succeed and want to show, and want to be a part of agriculture.”
The same determination, hard work, and commitment it took to come back better the next year in the show ring was something Olivia witnessed on a daily basis at home on her family’s farm, Zurcher Dairy.
Olivia, along with her two sisters, remembers running a tight schedule during high school while juggling farm chores with 4-H, FFA, and sports involvement. She learned many time-management skills that came in handy.
“School was half an hour away,” she said. “It was really hard to leave at 7 a.m., get back after 6 p.m., help out with everything on the farm, and still be a student.” She would have just enough time to feed calves and her pigs and finish her homework before getting some sleep to do it all again the next day.
Olivia had always dreamed of going to the University of Idaho but wasn’t quite sure what she wanted to get a degree in. She hoped to spark an interest in farming within the next generation, creating a curiosity to learn more no matter their background. Olivia knew from an early age she wanted to be a teacher, but it wasn’t until 16 that she realized she could put her passion for agriculture and teaching together — a career as an ag teacher.
“I always went back to teaching and ag,” she remembered. “Those were the two I could never quite let go of, even if I wanted to.” Serving as the Mid-Columbia Dairy Ambassador her senior year of high school was where she first witnessed the growing gap between the consumers buying food in the grocery store that her family produced. That realization inspired her to make a difference.
“Growing up in a small town most of the kids in school were farm kids. Looking back I think everyone I knew in school had some background in ag,” she said. “I didn’t realize that isn’t how it is everywhere until the Dairy Ambassador program and until I went off to college.” Following her dream, Olivia attended the University of Idaho, where she immersed herself in the Agriculture Education Program. She had opportunities to travel the country with FFA, as well as judge at nationals on UI’s Livestock Judging Team in Lincoln, Nebraska.
She’s using the values learned on the farm as she completes her first year of teaching at Prosser High School.
“Seeing my family work so hard and being brought up in that really pushed me to work hard in high school and college and now work hard as a teacher,” she said. “It shaped who I am.”
She considers it an honor to work in a small town, like Prosser, Washington, and be surrounded by areas like the Yakima Valley and the Columbia Basin that wouldn’t be what they are without agriculture. Olivia is passionate about teaching her students the importance of the farming that is part of their everyday lives.
“Look at the wine industry, the fruit production, hops, all the dairies around,” she said. “And sometimes because it’s so close, these kids see it just as part of life and they sometimes forget about it. This is agriculture right here, everywhere you look.”
Pulling from her own experiences of farming, Olivia brings an honesty and integrity to the classroom, and a deep passion for what she teaches. She’s noticed the sincere interest her kids have in learning about farming, and has made it her objective to share her knowledge with them the best she can. Most kids don’t have the chance to learn about these things, she observed. “Seeing that light bulb go off is really rewarding,” she said.
She tasks her students to look at people in their own lives and make connections; examining their link to agriculture. “Agriculture is much more than being a farmer,” she says. “That’s what makes being an ag teacher such an awesome experience — watching kids realize and make connections about ag is really rewarding.”
Her main goal is to prepare her students for their future professional endeavors and open their eyes to a world of agriculture that lies in their backyards; the beautiful farmland of Washington State. She is determined to help students understand where their food comes from and if they are interested, make sure the next generation knows what career options are available in agriculture
Olivia says she is living her dream in the classroom and in her personal life. This summer, like the past 14 years, she will find herself with a community she loves at the county fair.
“I’m still here and still get to do what I love,” she said, smiling. This time she won’t be the one in the ring, though, instead, she’s helping her students get their animals ready, preparing for memories that will last a lifetime.