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Tuesday February 21, 2012 Edition
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FFA From Both Sides of the Table: Meeting Ariculture Teacher Bill VandeWeert

Tuesday February 21, 2012

By Cookie Steponaitis

    When Bill Vandeweert was a student at VUHS and a member of the FFA, long time vocational and agriculture teacher Harmon Boyce was used to the ribbing about “Farmin with Harmon”, because Mr. Boyce knew the program was so much more than that. So, did Bill Vandeweert. Even as a student, Bill choose FFA as a place to commit his time and to learn, because he valued the people, programs and even then knew his future was linked to the land. “FFA was an exciting organization when I was an active member in high school, and I think the same is true today,” shared Bill VandeWeert. “FFA is a unique youth organization because it seeks to combine three valuable components. First, FFA members learn agricultural skills and knowledge through classes and competitions. Second, members also participate by taking on leadership roles and working as a team in the student-run chapter. Finally, members choose their own individual agricultural experiences—usually working at a job, operating a business, volunteering, job shadowing or a combination of these. This model for agricultural involvement is time-tested and has worked in Vergennes and across the country for years. Agriculture is always changing. This model is flexible to meet the new needs. Agricultural classes and competitions can change, students choose what they want to do for their agricultural experiences, and the activities of the chapter reflect the goals of the members.”

    Now in 2012 beginning his fourth year at the helm of the FFA and the Agricultural Science teaching position at VUHS, Bill is proud of all of the growth FFA members show. Some of the current special projects of the group involve seeing the New York Farm Show on February 24th getting ready for the annual Dairy Day and Tractor Day. “I am very proud of the work students do in organizing a day with dairy products and related lessons for elementary school students,” shared Bill. “It is always fun to see cattle on the lawn and the front row of the school parking lot filled with tractors. The visiting elementary school students get really excited.”

    While the special events are exciting, Bill was quick to remind readers that the backbones of the FFA programs are unchanged from his time as a student in the program. Several competitions serve as a place for students to travel, compete, and be seen in local, state and national competitions. While the students enjoy the travel and the interesting exhibits from other members across the country, it is the set of useful technical skills and teamwork that VandeWeert feels is the greatest asset for each member. “ They get recognition for their hard work,” he explained. “ Of course the trips are costly and we do fundraising every year, but what they come away with is so worth the effort and the time it takes to prepare for them.”

  While there is little doubt that the field of agriculture continues to change in Vermont, both Vandeweert and his students are grounded in their lifestyles that revolve around working with the land and the animals. When thinking about the future of FFA, VandeWeert remarked, “I hope FFA stays strong in the region, but I am concerned about it. Many FFA and Ag programs disappear when Ag teachers retire. I hope our communities and leaders in the state continue to see the importance of agricultural education and FFA in teaching our youth about the exciting field of agriculture in Vermont.” In fact, the Vergennes and Middlebury Chapters are so active that currently all three state FFA officers are students in Addison County. One is from the Middlebury Chapter, Ashley Howlett, and two are from the Vergennes Chapter, AnnaJo Smith and Garth Buck.

    While there was a time in the past when a person with a love of the land and a strong work ethic could make a living as a farmer, the agriculture students of today are part mechanics, part scientists, part technicians, part business people, part bookkeepers and part geneticists. When reflecting on the new green technologies in the forefront of Vermont’s future and how the FFA and agriculture programs are changing, VandeWeert explained, “The Ag teachers at the Hannaford Career Center, my employer, have a diverse advisory board that gives us direction about where agriculture is going and what our students need to learn. We modify our curriculum based on the board’s recommendations. I find innovation exciting and strongly encourage my students to be creative in solving problems. Developing small businesses is essential to the strengthening of our economy and the establishment of emerging technology. In support of small business, I recently started an agricultural entrepreneurship course where students learn about entrepreneurship in agriculture. During the class, the students write business plans for business ideas that they have, agricultural or other.”

   While statistics continue to challenge the future of the family farm and Vermonters wonder where the green technology may take us, FFA and people like Bill VandeWeert are not only optimistic, but down right excited as the next generation steps into place and the learning cycle of loving the land and working with it begins anew, like it did for him when he was on the other side of the desk and “farming with Harmon.”

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