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With two new FFA programs starting in Antelope County in as many years, will Orchard Public School be the next?
Orchard freshman Madison Melcher participates in FFA through a cooperation with Verdigre, which is also part of the Nebraska Unified District #1. Melcher said she believes an FFA program could not only make Orchard more attractive as a school, but also strengthen the community.
Principal Cathy Cooper said Orchard has considered adding the program, but there are many factors to consider. Currently, Orchard has an opening for an industrial arts teacher, which could include agriculture instruction.
“We are open to either hiring either a skilled and technical sciences instructor or an ag instructor, per availability of possible candidates,” Cooper said. “We feel we’ve got that piece (agriculture) there, but I don’t think that we are opposed to expanding that. We may be looking for a skilled and technical sciences person, and we may be looking for an ag instructor, and that could include FFA. We’re definitely looking into that option.”
Other FFA programs in the county include Elgin, which has had a program for many years, Neligh-Oakdale and Elkhorn Valley. Neligh-Oakdale restarted its chapter last year, and Elkhorn Valley’s program began this school year.
Currently, Orchard students take agriculture classes via distance learning through Verdigre. When it comes time for FFA, Orchard students travel 30 miles for meetings. For Melcher, who lives near Page, it’s an even longer drive.
“At the moment I have to travel 40 minutes just to go to a simple meeting, or I have to go through a DL class,” she said.
Melcher’s passion for agriculture has already shined with Verdigre’s FFA program. She was selected as FFA member of the month in December. Traveling hasn’t stopped her from completing any tasks, but some underclassmen struggle. Levi Cronk, an eighth-grader at Orchard, said bringing FFA closer to Orchard would benefit the students.
“We could be involved in more competitions,” Cronk said. “It’s the fact that we can’t be over there every morning trying to practice. We’d be able to learn more, and we’d be able to have more classes.”
While the travel has hindered both Cronk and Melcher, they still consider themselves luckier than most because they are able to attend as many events, meetings and practices as they do.
“There are kids who want to go into agriculture, but they don’t really have that chance because not everyone can make that trip whenever needed,” Cronk said.
Melcher said it’s not only the travel that is a struggle, learning over a TV makes the competition difficult.
“This year I competed in parliamentary procedure, which is running a meeting for a chapter, and it was difficult because I only learned it through the DL,” she said. “I’d never worked with these kids in person, so it’s difficult for us to be able to have that bond and be able to read each other’s faces when we needed.”
Both students said they appreciate that Orchard is open-minded to their desire to look into FFA and said they hope it can be integrated into the school in the coming years.
“It would be worth it,” Cronk said. “It’d be one of the better things the school could do. There are plenty of competitions you can go into in order to advance your knowledge.”
Melcher said she believes all students could benefit from more ag classes and FFA, not just those from an agricultural background.
“Students (will) realize that it’s not just about the cows or the pigs and just living on a ranch,” she said. “It can involve the golf course field and keeping the grass clean or the football field or anything that involves plants. Or bankers being able to give loans out to farmers who need them for land and stuff like that.”
Cooper said students aren’t the only ones interested in localizing agriculture classes. She said there’s been more of a push from parents and the community to look at the agricultural side of education and the careers that are involved.
If Orchard administration and board members move toward more agriculture classes and FFA, Cooper said the community possibly could help raise some of the necessary funds for the program.
“I think anything is attainable if you set your mind to it,” Cooper said. “And I think we have a really supportive community, so I feel like it would be something that people would be open to.”