Elsberry FFA Emphasizes Diverse Ag Experiences
October 1, 2022
Written By Neal Fandek
“There’s a little bit of everything for any type of personality or interest group,” ag teacher Sarah Ray said of the Elsberry (Mo.) FFA Chapter, which she leads with Jason Vandivort. That may be an understatement.
Elsberry FFA students have one of the widest ranges of hands-on learning opportunities, which results in a broad scope of products and services.
There’s the fresh-picked corn, $5 a dozen. Benches and cornhole boards for sale in fundraisers. Carnivals and catered events ranging from poker runs and fish fries. Quilts and wreaths. Lemon and coconut meringue pies. Spider plants and dragon wing begonias nurtured in greenhouses.
Then there are the first-place wins in entomology, food science, fruit production and more at the state and other fairs in recent years. The students who show their prize hogs, lambs, Suffolk ewes, rams and goats have their own trailers to stay at the fairs. They don’t have to buy or rent grooming chutes, trimming stands, blowers and clippers, either; the chapter owns these.
Ray and Vandivort provide courses in exploratory ag, ag power implements and construction, ag structures, horticulture, ag science, ag business for personal finance credit, food science, and veterinary science. This leads to unique, once-in-a-lifetime educational trips both domestically and internationally.
The chapter recently completed an East Coast road trip covering over 3,000 miles. They have also toured coffee plantations, a Dole plantation and a macadamia nut farm in Hawaii. They have gone on ag-focused trips to Costa Rica and Panama. They have visited the late Queen of England’s herd of cattle at her Windsor estate and a French farm with its own vending machines. Speaking of fairs, they helped show English dairy goats at the Royal Cheshire County Show in Cheshire, England, reputedly the world’s oldest fair. Students who can’t afford these trips on their own work for the chapter’s catering business to earn the funds.
“From trapshooting to catering for fundraising to international travel and our show team, there is very little we don’t offer,” Ray said. “We have such a diverse group! And they’ll try just about anything. Some are not farm kids, but they’ll jump in and work. We have a very diverse group of students interested in doing many things, and very rarely do we present something to the students, and they say no.”
This combination of hands-on experience and broadened horizons saw the Elsberry FFA named an outstanding nationwide program by the National Association of Agricultural Educators a few years back. Ray was named an outstanding young teacher by the Missouri Vocational Agriculture Teachers Association last year. The program also partners with organizations ranging from St. Jude’s Hospital to the National Wild Turkey Federation to the Missouri Department of Conservation. Other partners include the Lincoln County Democrat and Republican clubs, MFA Oil and Lincoln County first responders.
Both teachers quickly credit Elsberry resident and longtime volunteer George Nieters, who oversees the catering program and helps students in the greenhouses and school farm. “George is here just as many hours as we are, and the program wouldn’t be what it is without him,” Ray said.
“Jason, Sarah and George spend a tremendous amount of time trying to provide students with opportunities through our FFA program,” said Mike Boedeker, Elsberry High School principal. “They are extremely passionate about the FFA organization and always looking for ways to support students and our community.”
Vandivort is closing in on two decades of teaching, and he’s still enthused. He says he was motivated by watching his Mountain Grove, Mo., high school ag teachers and their visible enjoyment of their work. “I truly enjoy helping others and have a passion for agriculture. I love teaching about the diversity and importance of agriculture.”
Because ag powers the world—including Costa Rica, England and eastern Missouri.