PROPHETSTOWN, Ill. — Burgeoning agriculture educator Hailey Michelson once thought buffalo wings came from actual buffaloes.
My, how far she and the Prophetstown High School ag program have come over the past few years.
Hailey, a junior, is a walking, welding, construction-savvy embodiment of the new-age ag student, and those ag students make up more than half of the school’s student body.
She’s gone from a budding ag student to aspiring to teach ag to middle school or high school kids.
“Some people don’t know the difference between the combine and a tractor,” Hailey said. “I’d like to take care of that sort of thing for students before they leave high school.”
When Sara Conner, 30, took over the program in 2012, she had about 40 students, between the intro to ag class she taught at Erie High, and the three ag courses she taught in P-town.
Today, about 150 of the 285 high-schoolers take an ag class. They’ve got at least 10 to pick from, compared to the four when Conner took the helm. That same year was the last year industrial arts were taught at the school, and they’ve been slowly folded into the ag department, which helped drive participation.
The snowballing interest and participation led to the hiring of Sam Perschnick, 23, a unique story in his own right. He grew up on a farm in Dwight, but was more interested in growing young minds than growing corn.
“I wasn’t necessarily as active on the farm,” said Perschnick, who graduated from Illinois State University in May. “I always had an interest, but going into education and helping kids find the same love for it that I did was the direction I wanted to take.”
With the ink on his ag education degree still wet, he took over the more vocational-oriented courses this year. Previously, Conner was teaching welding, drafting and construction.
It took the district 3 years to find Perschnick. While the ag industry is growing and expanding, ag educators remain tough to find.
That makes students like Hailey a precious commodity – and to think she was planning to become a dentist, until Conner, who was her cheerleading coach, convinced her to check out the ag department.
Hailey shadowed her, with amazement.
“It was something I found really interesting,” Hailey said. “It turned into FFA, and pretty much my whole life now. I’m always going to contests, and I’m in so many ag classes now. I’m glad I am, because I really enjoy it.”
Tonight, she’ll compete in a food science contest. She’s competed in public speaking on parliamentary procedure – properly upholding a business meeting.
“You wouldn’t really think public speaking would go with ag, but it does,” Hailey said. “Ag is so much. When I first came in, I just thought of farming. I don’t come from a farming background like everyone else does. It was cool to see what all you can do, and where you can go in this field.”
Ross Cady, vice president of the school’s FFA council, knew Hailey before she joined ag, and he couldn’t be more excited to watch her grow.
When he and the council’s president, fellow senior Alec Weztell, were sophomores, there were about 18 FFA members. Now, there’s about 40, more than half of whom are underclassmen.
That participation, and the group’s ramped-up activity, has created opportunities galore.
“Most importantly, it lets us learn more,” Ross said. “The more people you have doing specific things, the more contests you can enter, and the more contests you can have. If we still had 20 kids in FFA, Mr. P wouldn’t be here. We wouldn’t have gotten a $12,000 grant for this shop.”
Oh, about that. The ag shop, as well as the wood shop that sat idle after the industrial arts department closed, are filled with equipment bought by a grant from the education foundation.
“Knowing people want us, and want the ag community, to be successful, it’s something we’ve worked hard on spreading here,” Ross said. “I think the numbers of involvement show that.”
He and Alec have been reorganizing the shops, and there are more upgrades coming down the pike, including more equipment and an electrical overhaul.
The FFA kids will host middle school students one Friday each month the rest of the semester to teach them about horticulture, ag mechanics, plant science, animal science, and, of course, FFA.
“Depending on what the interest is like, we’re going to see what it will take to get ag into the middle school as a third option, in addition to art and computers,” Ross said.
Educating kids earlier can get them fired up about ag before they even get to high school.
“We need to expose them to this,” Hailey said. “When I came in, I didn’t even know we had an ag program.”
It’s vital, Ross said, that people know just how much ag touches their lives.
“A lot of people don’t understand that just about everything you do on a daily basis involves agriculture,” he said.
“It’s so fascinating how many different types of equipment, materials and technology – like GPS – were based off agricultural research,” added Willie Cochran, a sophomore and treasurer on the FFA council.
Only about 2 percent of folks in the ag industry work in actual production.
There are tech companies building everything from fertilizers to drones – and lawyers, marketing companies and more for those companies.
In fact, Conner said she’s constantly preaching that there are 300 career areas in agriculture.
Ross plans to double-major in ag business. Alec? Business and systems technology. Willie? Welding and mechanics.
Junior Dena Johnson, the council’s reporter, who’d been considering going into medicine, is now leaning toward veterinary science.
Hailey just wants to keep learning and sharing for life.
“I love teaching people new things they don’t know, and that they can carry with them forever.”
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— Christopher Heimerman, Sauk Valley Media via The Associated Press
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