Like many rural communities across North Iowa and the Midwest, Sheffield has a population of approximately 1,200. The community is bordered by productive farmland. The north side of town also is home to Sukup Manufacturing.
You’d expected this rural community to have a strong and growing agricultural education program, but membership in the West Fork FFA Chapter might surprise you. Half of the chapter’s 37 members live in town, and many of them are interested in raising livestock.
Fortunately for these students, they have the opportunity to learn from a passionate agricultural education instructor both inside the classroom and outside in their Animal Learning Facility. This late 1800s barn has been renovated thanks to the generosity of the Sukup family and with help from their employees.
“During the 2017-18 school year, we had two gilts farrow their first litters in the Animal Learning Facility. They were both a student’s gilts from last year, and he chose to breed and farrow them. It was an excellent opportunity for him to learn a little bit about genetics, how to artificially inseminate, and how the farrowing process works,” says West Fork FFA Advisor Kaitlyn Bonzer. “Livestock births don’t always go according to plan, but we’ve had great support from our community members. Local livestock producers have been a Godsend when some of these gilts have had trouble farrowing. It’s great to have interaction between community members and students because that provides more learning opportunities.”
In addition to farrowing sows, the Animal Learning Facility provides real-world supervised agricultural experiences (SAE) for other students interested in raising laying hens and bees. Students who house their SAE projects inside the Animal al Learning Facility are asked to sign a contract to ensure they take responsibility in their learning. When school isn’t in session, a student is chosen to take care of the barn and earns hours towards his/her Iowa Degree.
West Fork FFA members have been involved in a variety of contests and learning experiences since Ms. Bonzer joined the faculty. Most recently, four teams competed in the North Central District Soils contest and one team advanced to the state competition.
“This is the first year I’ve had a team advance to state, so it was pretty exciting,” said Ms. Bonzer. “The kids were very excited, and I’m proud of their work.”
In May, the West Fork FFA will hold its annual sale of vegetable garden starter plants, hanging baskets, and flower bed plants.
Plans also are underway for the third annual West Fork Summer Classic the first weekend in June at the Franklin County Fairgrounds in Hampton. The show began as a way to get students more involved in the swine industry, as well as to raise funds for the chapter. The show is an Iowa Swine Jackpot Series (ISJS) sanctioned show, so for those circuit showers, registration will open online for the show. All youth are eligible for this show, however. Registration will take place the day of the show for those who are not an ISJS member.
“I enjoy watching students experience agriculture in so many facets,” says Ms. Bonzer. “Some kids have little farm experience prior to taking class with me, so they get really excited about experiencing things that many typical ‘farm kids’ have been doing their entire lives like watching livestock give birth. Other kids that have been involved with agriculture for longer periods of time, and I really enjoy the challenge of teaching them new things. Seeing kids enjoy learning makes my job so rewarding!”
Ms. Bonzer grew up on a small stock farm outside of Nashua, which is about 40 miles from Sheffield, and both schools are part of the Top of Iowa Conference. She gained 4-H experience with cattle, hogs, sheep, and chickens on her family’s farm. She joined FFA in middle school and learned about crop production through her SAE.
“My Supervised Agricultural Experience was originally in Diversified Livestock Production. Then it expanded into Diversified Crop Production Placement where I worked for a local organic vegetable producer. I’d always gardened with my grandmothers, but going large scale really opened my eyes and taught me a lot more about technique. That SAE experience really grew my love of gardening and food production.”
Her positive FFA experience prompted Ms. Bonzer to enroll at Iowa State University and major in agricultural education.
“I had an excellent role model and FFA Advisor, Mr. Ronald Zelle. I knew I wanted to teach from an early age. As I got older, my passion grew for agriculture. What better way than to combine teaching with agriculture? I get to pump up kids about agriculture and watch them become passionate about the same things I am!” says Ms. Bonzer, who was awarded the North Central District Young Teacher of the Year in 2016 at the Iowa Association of Ag Educators (IAAE) Conference.
“This was such an honor to me because it recognizes the up and coming teachers around the state for their work throughout the year,” says Ms. Bonzer, who began teaching in 2014 at North Union Community School District and came to West Fork in 2016. “I owe it to the kids, however. They’re the ones who go along with some of my crazy ideas, and they really put in the man hours to do much of what happens within the chapter.”
While I appreciate Ms. Bonzer’s humble acceptance of her Young Teacher of the Year award, I also know outstanding teachers put in extra hours and work extra hard to develop notable FFA Chapters and to inspire their students. The best teachers and FFA advisors motivate students to reach for their dreams, no matter where their career path leads. (Like Ms. Bonzer, my FFA advisor inspired me to pursue an ag career. Attending FFA career fairs and then a tour of Iowa State University with Mr. Jorgenson greatly influenced my career path. FFA speaking contests also helped prepare me for a career in communications.)
Certain school districts earn a reputation for developing leaders into district, state and national FFA officers. Certain schools earn a reputation for being formidable opponents in Career Development Events (CDEs) that help students hone critical thinking and communication skills. As a member of the West Fork FFA Advisory Committee, I’m encouraged by the plans Ms. Bonzer has for our chapter.
“The potential sitting in this community and with these students is outstanding! While some of my short-term goals include increasing the size of the chapter and the involvement of its membership in our community, I hope someday to establish a West Fork Alumni Chapter for the supporters of our FFA chapter,” says Ms. Bonzer. “I also see potential in some of our current members to someday become district and state officer candidates, American Degree recipients, and possibly National Proficiency Award winners, which is something that hasn’t been accomplished for this chapter in years. There are big things in store for the near future!”
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