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New FFA, ag program takes off running

By Staff | Mar 21, 2015

-Farm News photos by Karen Schwaller ALEXIS ZOMERMAAND hones her welding skills in the new ag program at Unity Christian High School. A sophomore — and the only girl in her welding class — Zomermaand said she gets a lot out of the ag mechanics course.


ORANGE CITY-A brand new ag program and FFA chapter for this school year have shown patrons of Unity Christian High School that things often have a way of working out.

Wayne Dykstra, head of school, said the school board met for a strategic planning retreat three years ago to discuss curriculum strengths and weaknesses.

From that, he said, it became apparent the school needed more hands-on courses.

“We spend too much time keeping kids in desks,” he said. “We’re applying more kinesthetic movement into all of our curriculum, but we were thinking of hands-on things like mechanics, industrial arts, ag-and it was time to address that in the next five years.”

LANE VANDE VOORT, a senior at Unity Christian, cuts metal in the school’s new ag shop. Vande Voort, from Orange City, said he and his father repair tractors together. He’s used most of the equipment in the shop before, but said he’s glad his younger brother will get a lot of use out of all of it as he comes up through the grades in the ag program.

Three years later, the school has a formal program in operation.

“It’s pretty cool,” Dykstra said.

Funding was the top priority, he said, so the school petitioned the community to seek assistance to start up an ag education program and FFA chapter.

The initial goal of $150,000 for a salary, the tools, books and equipment needed to create an ag program, tallies more than $350,000 now.

“Since this is a tuition-based school,” Dykstra said, “we felt we couldn’t raise tuition to pay for this.

TREVOR KNIBBE, a junior at Unity Christian High School, confers with ag teacher Dennis Benson to learn what he did well and what needs improvement on his welding. Knibbe said the ag course is valuable to him because he plans to pursue an automotive career.

“The response from the community has been overwhelming.”

Dykstra said the ag teacher’s wages will be built into the budget after the first three years. This year the entire salary package will come out of the donated funds; then 66 percent of it the next year and 33 percent the third year.

Dykstra said the board opted to start an ag program because of the rural area in which the school exists and the opportunities that could arise for their students from ag education.

They put the call out for a teacher, but responses were slow coming in. When crunch time came, Dykstra asked a group of women, Moms In Prayer, which meets at the school every Tuesday, to add an ag teacher to their list.

“Those women took on that prayer request that Tuesday,” said Dykstra. “On Wednesday, the Maple Valley-Anthon Oto School District offered their ag teacher an early retirement package, and on Thursday he was here looking at the job.

“It was really incredible how God worked to make this all come together.”

Benson, a 35-year veteran of ag teaching at MVAO, said he knew it would be a challenge setting up an ag program and FFA chapter from scratch, but he said he was up for it.

His biggest surprise there, though, was the 93 kids that signed up for the program in its maiden year.

“I thought we might have 40 or 50 kids, but we had double that,” he said. “We’re now have the third largest (FFA) chapter in Northwest Iowa.”

Benson said there are classes such as basic agri-science, ag mechanics, horticulture and farm business management.

He would eventually like to add classes such as advanced agri-science (crops and livestock), and a natural resources course.

This year he’s offering an adult welding night class due to requests from local adults to hone that skill.

Ag students built wooden work benches for the shop, and a metal table was also built for the students to use as they assess welding techniques.

Five welding stations were purchased, and power and hand tools were purchased and donated. A few of their new tools include a bench grinder, drill press, cut-off saw, sheer, table saw and jigsaw.

Benson said he and his students constructed a storage shed outside the ag shop and poured concrete between the school and that shed. The FFA is in the process of selling fruit, and he said his next big project will be putting up a greenhouse. That will start around April 1.

Stephanie Westra, who lives on a dairy farm near Primghar, is the chapter’s first president. She’s a senior, moving to Primghar three years ago from California, where her family operated a dairy farm.

“I’ve lived on a farm my whole life and I’m still learning, but not everyone gets to (live on a farm),” she said. “The new ag program brings a different level to where we are in academics.

“Not all kids like to sit in classrooms, and not all kids get to go to livestock competitions, learn about gardening and things like that. This program is huge for us because this is such an agricultural area where we live.”

Westra said the new ag and FFA programs give students and the Christian school a chance to give back to their community through service projects and working with various community organizations.

“It gives us a new perspective on our community,” she said.

Although Westra said she took an ag class and belonged to the South O’Brien FFA chapter during her junior year, Dykstra said it wasn’t feasible to share this program on a large scale with another school.

He said there has been a learning curve as they have made their way through this first year, but he said it’s been worth every effort.

“We have been so blessed to give these students an opportunity to grow and shine in curriculum areas that were not here before,” said Dykstra. “It’s really great to walk into the shop and see our kids welding and building things.

“I know the future will be bright for this program, and by adding ag and FFA, we’ve also made ourselves more marketable as a high school. The community has caught the vision, because now they are coming in and asking us what they can do for us.”

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