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Student enrollment surging in FFA-sponsored agriculture classes

By Stan Maddux 
Indiana Correspondent
LAPORTE, Ind. – An Indiana school district where agriculture is a major economic driver has seen a sharp increase in student enrollment for classes sponsored by FFA.
The agriculture program at La Porte High School, started in 2014, was expanded last year to grades 6, 7, and 8. Enrollment at the high school over the past four years has doubled to about 200 while another 100 students in grades six to eight are taking the courses this year. The program has also grown from one to two full-time instructors.
Senior Tristan Naue said he wouldn’t be as interested in coming to school without the program and its hands-on learning.
“The textbook classes you’re just doing it to pass,” he said. “I feel like this is a lot more interesting because you can see it being like applying to the real world.”
Jesi Davenport, an instructor and FFA advisor at the high school, said, “We got a lot of community support for our program.” She said 65 of the students enrolled in the program are FFA members.
Davenport said some of her students have no prior experience in farming, but are curious about food production and obtaining skills like fixing machinery useful in agriculture, other lines of work and do-it-yourself projects at home.
Most recently, the high school students learned how to wire an electrical switch.
Restoration of an old Allis Chalmers lawn tractor already on site is planned at some point.
“There’s a lot of freshmen who really liked it at middle school and now they’re coming up and wanting to do it in high school,” she said.
Eighth grade students completing middle school courses successfully receive credit toward their high school diplomas. Students also do things like plant and harvest corn and soybeans at a 5-acre school district-owned parcel.
They sell the corn out in the community and deliver the soybeans to a local grain elevator for purchase.
Students are also taught how to judge quality of soil to determine if a site is better suited for agriculture or housing and whether a septic tank can be installed based on ground condition and what type of septic system should be installed.
“Being a soil scientist is like a career they could potentially have after high school,” Davenport said.
Students also learn how to judge the quality of things like crops and livestock, which can help with their profit margins if they choose to become farmers. The skills of the students are then put to the test at FFA-sponsored judging contests throughout the state.
Senior Audrey Jeffers, who keeps a few pigs and cows along with a horse, said livestock judging is right up her alley. Her goal is to study animal science at Purdue University and go on to become a zoologist.
Jeffers, president of the LaPorte FFA chapter, said the bond she feels with her teachers and classmates is what she likes most about the program at her school. 
“It’s just a great group of people that I get along with really well,” she said.
Also included in the curriculum is instruction on electrical wiring and welding.
Classes on horticulture are new to the program this year. A greenhouse was recently constructed at the middle school with help from a grant to grow decorative plants and crops.
Davenport, 26, grew up helping to raise horses, pigs, cows and chickens on a small farm near Michigan City. She studied agriculture education at Purdue where she met her husband, Foster, whose family grows mostly corn and soybeans on nearly 2,000 acres near Plymouth.
Davenport said having a relationship with students outside the traditional classroom and watching them grow is one of the things she enjoys most about the FFA school program.
She splits her teaching duties between animal science and agriculture mechanics. “It’s just like two totally different class subjects and it’s never the same day twice,” Davenport said.
Junior Gavin Redlin, a part-time worker at several farms, said he doesn’t know exactly what he’s going to do after graduating but feels the courses are preparing him for what his role will be in the workforce. “I’m just a working kind of guy. It’s very hands on. You learn a lot of things,” he said.