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Early each morning on the Engelbrecht farm in Davenport, 15 year old Chloe is up with the chickens.

The North Scott High School sophomore is learning life lessons by taking responsibility for the egg-layers on the family farm. But her involvement in her high school's agriculture program is taking her understanding of farming to another level.

Chloe, the daughter of Corey and Erin Engelbrecht, is a member of the North Scott FFA organization (previously known as Future Farmers of America), and she takes classes in agricultural education. The classrooms are busy places, with 110 students enrolled in ag classes taught by Jacob Hunter.

Between Hunter's classes at the high school and those taught by Andrea Kuffel at the junior high, 260 North Scott students are enrolled in an increasingly innovative and sought-after program. In fact, curriculum the two are crafting has the full support of the district, which aims to make North Scott the center of FFA and ag education in the Quad-City region and beyond.

For example, Hunter has teamed up with science teachers to come up with a one-of-a-kind, ag-focused biology class that emphasizes plants and animals.

“It’s unusual," Hunter said. "We are the first in the state to do this.”

The classes are so popular at the high school that the first year's enrollment of 16 students in "Introduction to Agriculture" shot to 65 students this year. The course now requires three full classes.

Chloe Engelbrecht is among the children of farm families associated with ag and FFA, but most of Hunter’s students live in town. They are one or two generations removed from farming. And not all are from North Scott. One student moved to the area specifically for the program, and another attends the ag classes and FFA events, but is a Davenport Central student.

Throughout the region, educators' eyes are on the program, eager to see the results.

Answering the call

Jacob Hunter, 28, is a native of DeWitt, who returned to teaching after learning of North Scott's ag-education plans.

Two years ago, he was education director for the World Food Prize, based in Des Moines.

“I do love teaching and working with students and helping them find their path in life,” he said. “This is perfect for me.”

Part of the draw comes from being closer to his own family farm. He lives in Davenport and appreciates the support the North Scott community has for the programs he leads.

People across Iowa are watching the agricultural-biology program, Hunter said. Many are interested to see the results of combining core standards for biology with agricultural elements. Right now, for instance, students are studying cell structure, and they will advance to plant and animal genetics.

One student in ag biology is Colin Henzen, 15, of Donahue. He likes biology, but he also loves to work on a farm.

"I think this is a really great experience, especially compared to normal biology,” he said, adding that he likes to learn about cell structure in animals and plants and plans to study plant science.

Chloe Engelbrecht also takes an ag biology class.

“That’s easy for me to understand, and I like the ag twist," she said. "It teaches me more about the careers I want to go into.”

She feeds and waters the family's show chickens twice a day. The family started raising chickens 10 years ago, starting with meat birds or broilers.

“We found out that they were pretty dumb,” Chloe said of the broilers.

So, they moved on to production chickens that lay eggs. In the process, Chloe and her three siblings are learning several lessons, including the business of selling fresh eggs.

Ag education, job pipeline

The growth and popularity of North Scott's agriculture program is recognized in other parts of Iowa.

Mike Gaul is career services director at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Iowa State University, Ames, and sees the growth as “an incredible pipeline of talent for the ag industry.”

There is a demand for ag workers, Gaul said, and the demand is sure to increase as a particularly large generation heads into retirement.

“The exit of the Boomers will create a vacuum of talent,” he said.

Today, about 70 percent of Iowa State students in the agriculture college stay in Iowa after graduating. As high as 98 percent of them find a job within six months of graduation, Gaul said.

In the past several years, fewer students are pursuing advance degrees, and that is because of a robust job market for entry-level workers, he said.

Employers such as River Valley Cooperative reach out to students who have an ag education from both two-year and four-year colleges, said Jayne Carstensen, communications specialist for the Mount Joy-based co-op.

Iowa State is one of four major universities from which River Valley recruits, hiring six or seven agronomy sales interns a year, she said. They also get operational interns, who work in the fields on sprayers or fertilizer trucks, from Muscatine Community College and Black Hawk College East, Kewanee. The co-op has 20 locations and 260 full-time employees, hiring another 100 seasonally.

“We’ve hired quite a few interns over the years," Carstensen said. "They turn out to be great employees.”

FFA name reflects shift in ag

Prior to 1988, FFA referred to Future Farmers of America.

While the original name is still recognized, it is now the "National FFA Organization," reflecting a more diverse population of disciplines and a shrinking number of members who actually live on farms. New chapters are popping up, including one in metro Des Moines, and existing chapters are going strong.

Hunter, the North Scott teacher, describes FFA as part of the agriculture-education curriculum. Students in FFA work on horticulture, photography, and other interests, including chicken production like the operation at Chloe Engelbrecht's family farm.

This year’s North Scott FFA president is Collin Costello, 17, of Long Grove. He grew up on a dairy farm and started working “as soon as I could walk,” he said. He was doing chores on the farm by the time he was 6.

Costello loves to farm, and speaks knowledgeably about dairy production. His family has built a new dairy barn that employs robots to milk cows. There are 120 cows and each is tagged and named with monikers, such as Tomlin, Twill and Autumn.

He likes to work with the calves and said there are calves year-round these days. He helps his father, Martin Costello, on all aspects of farm work, and the family sells milk every other day to Prairie Farms.

He is one of the seniors in Hunter’s classes, all of whom complete a capstone project. The students spend months working on them.

• Paige Goodney, 17, of Eldridge, studies succulent plants. She now is making a brochure to tell others how to grow them, what nutrients they need, and she is designing a succulent garden. 

• Cora Kroeger, 17, of Eldridge, is into photography. She is using her Nikon camera for marketing opportunities. For example, she will take photos of Collin Costello on his dairy farm, and use the shots to produce pamphlets.

• Collin Costello does a mentoring program for ninth-grade students, urging them to get involved in ag classes or FFA. He also looks to support freshmen as they become acclimated to high school. In addition, he is studying heart health on dairy farms.

• Jenna Kent, 17, of Long Grove, recently moved to the North Scott district from California, where she was born and raised. Jenna had been active in an FFA program, and chose North Scott because of it.

A senior, her capstone is the “Adopt a Soldier” program, which she also did in California. Jenna plans to go into the military after high school. She previously spent about $300 to prepare and mail packages to soldiers, filled with basic essentials. With Hunter’s help, she hopes to get a grant this year to cover those costs.

She likes North Scott, acknowledging that it is difficult to change schools as a senior. “But the FFA welcomed me,” she said.

New junior high ag program

Younger students wishing to study agricultural education in Eldridge started this year at North Scott Junior High with the hiring of teacher Andrea Kuffel. Like Hunter, the 23-year-old is an Iowa State graduate. She previously taught at Mid-Prairie schools, Wellman, Iowa and in Williamsburg, Iowa.

An exuberant educator, Kuffel brims with ideas for her 155 students, which include seventh- and eighth-graders in six classes. Seventh graders take the Plants, Animals and You course, and eighth graders take Agriculture Construction and Technology.

Kuffel describes her classes as fun, hands-on electives for students. Junior-high level agriculture education is fairly rare in Iowa, with exceptions in the Muscatine School District and in a district that includes Fayette, in northeast Iowa.

In Eldridge, Kuffel is always shaping new approaches to engage her students.

Last week, for example, her students designed posters on how grocery products are related to agriculture, including marshmallows (gelatin gotten, in part, from animal bones) and Coke (high-fructose corn syrup).

Like Hunter, Kuffel appreciates support from administrators, including junior high principal, John Hawley.

“He never knows what I’ll ask next,” Kuffel said.

Chickens, a family project

For Chloe Engelbrecht, raising chickens is a family project she shares with three younger siblings and her parents.

“It’s a good way to bond and a good experience for all of us,” she said.

The chickens require regular care: food and water at morning and night; mineral additives in the water, “so they won’t peck each other;” collection of eggs throughout the day; routine cleaning of the chickens' living quarters, including three barns for show chickens and the 250 laying hens.

Hunter, at the high school, loves to work with students, including Chloe, and he appreciates that he sees them for four years at a time in the ag program.

“I do think ag education is one of the best models for producing leaders in students that we have,” he said.

He senses a philanthropic side to the students, also noticed by Mike Gaul, the Iowa State University career specialist.

The students are looking for their place in the world, Hunter said, and they are interested in ending hunger and reducing the environmental impact of farmers. Youth today will reduce the current environmental challenges through science, he said.

Students from North Scott's ag programs have gone on to be farmers, welders, mechanics, college and university students, and turf-grass experts. A current college student is in dairy science, and others are studying veterinary medicine.

And the growth in North Scott’s agricultural program? That will continue, said Shane Knoche, the high school principal.

Additional curriculum collaboration is being explored, such as with the social sciences and English/Language Arts programs. Hunter’s students are interested in global food production and in ending hunger, so the social sciences would focus on clean water. And the English/Language Arts would connect the two, Knoche said.

There are more possibilities to explore, the principal said. “This is something that can benefit the entire Quad-Cities.”