“I think the more opportunities we can provide for our kids to see what else is out there, to understand that there’s more to this world than you being good at math or you being good at whatever it might be, I think we’re really going to ricochet a huge movement of people seeing again, oh, wow, I understand why God calls us to persevere. I understand why God calls us to work with our hands, whatever that might be. And I think it’s just going to take a lot of, we have to go back to our roots a little bit and literally look at what God started in Genesis 1 and what he continues to do as we continue to live in this fallen world.” – Kylie Nettinga
Check out Kylie’s blog post “Why Agricultural Education Shapes Faith Development” here.
The following transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity. Listen to the full podcast episode here or using the player below.
Michael Arnold: Kylie Nettinga, agricultural instructor and Future Farmers of America adviser at Western Christian High School in Hull, Iowa joins us in The Teacher’s Lounge today to talk about the value of agricultural education for faith-based schools. Kylie grew up doing chores on the family farm, but she specifically credits the two Future Farmers of America or FFA advisors that she had at the Iowa Mennonite High School that she attended for helping her connect her love of agriculture to her faith.
She followed their lead, and after earning an agricultural education degree at Iowa State University, she helped launch the agricultural program for students at Western Christian high School, where she currently teaches. Kylie is passionate about exposing all students to the joys of agriculture and seeks to create “agvocates” for agriculture in Christian education today.
Welcome Kylie. It’s nice to have you with us.
Kylie Nettinga: Thanks for having me, Michael.
Michael Arnold: Well, I’ve been looking forward to talking to you, but I am slightly nervous about this conversation because I have a deep, deep, well of ignorance about this topic. I’m a city boy. I grew up in the automotive region in Southeastern Michigan, and I now live in Cincinnati, Ohio, which last I checked was the 64th largest city in the United States. So I live in cities, and even though Ohio and Michigan are very heavily agricultural – it’s a big part of our economy – none of that has transferred to my experience or knowledge about this topic. So on one hand, I’m honored to have the opportunity to talk to you about this topic. On the other, I’m afraid that my ignorance is going to show. So that’s why I’m glad to talk to you to help me fill in some of the gaps in my own knowledge.
Kylie’s background in agriculture
Michael Arnold: But Kylie, it’s safe to say that farming is in your genes, right? You grew up doing farm work, chores before and after school. You grew up in a farming community and I’m sure that farming-related activities consumed much of your life, your imagination, even your social life and community-related events as you were growing up, even through college. So describe a little bit for us what that looked like for you and the role that agriculture has played in your life.
Kylie Nettinga: Yeah. So I, like you said, grew up in a pretty diversified, I would say, operation. My family didn’t have a huge farm by any means, but I still have memories from a young age of going out and doing chores as my family. And I first was exposed to pigs. We actually retired from pigs just this past year, but pigs are my first love. And then we introduced more 4-H projects through our community.
And I just always grew up having chores after school. And I remember in college, someone being like, “Chores? Like you’re terming that as something? Isn’t that just like something that you call a chore? You know, it’s not chores.” And I was like, no, like we go outside and we go check our animals. And we do all of these things before we come in.
And I would say for my community, I was probably, there’s at least half of the kids in my class that probably had some sort of relation to that. I wouldn’t say that I was like a big farmer, like Mike, my husband, for example, they have a hundred dairy cows and several hundred acres of corn and soybeans. But I was definitely exposed, and my parents definitely put that work ethic in my heart right away.
So those are some of my most favorite memories. I can definitely say at the time I probably was like, Dad, I should be getting a job as a waitress or something, but now that I look back on it, those moments of sitting in the barn late at night with lambing going on are some of my most favorite memories.
So that was kind of that experience, but in high school I really had no idea that agriculture was as big as it is. And I’m not just talking about the size of livestock or the size of corn fields. I’m talking about the sectors that are in agriculture that are available for students to be involved in.
And you also might want to know too, that FFA changed its name in 1988 from Future Farmers of America, to just the National FFA Organization, to actually cater to more of our students in the greater sectors. So I just thought I’d let you know that.
Michael Arnold: So it’s no longer called future farmers?
Kylie Nettinga: It’s actually not. I’m okay with people still saying it, but because only like 1.3% of our United States population is actually directly involved with production agriculture, they decided to broaden it to reach more of our students, like you, in our cities and in places that are doing other agricultural disciplines. So that’s kind of cool.
Michael Arnold: That’s awesome. So, yeah, it’s just FFA then. So they’re trying to remain true to their roots and yet reach a broader audience. And they’ve been successful. We’re only five minutes in and I’m already learning something today. So that’s great.
Well so you grew up doing 4-H and FFA in high school and things like that. Some pigs and other animals on your smaller family farm.
Western Christian High School
Michael Arnold: But Hull, Iowa is a very agricultural society. I’ve had a chance to visit your school and on my way to the school, I think I stayed in Sioux Falls on my way to the school. I took a wrong turn and I literally ended up in a cow pasture, or at least the entrance to a cow pasture, to make my turnaround to get back on the road. So I know that agriculture is a very big thing there in Iowa.
What percentage, you could just estimate this, what percentage of the students there at Western Christian are directly related to farming in some or agriculture in some way, shape, or form?
Kylie Nettinga: Yeah. I feel like I have to preface by saying, because I live in Sioux County, Iowa, which is literally the biggest agricultural county in the nation, I am very different compared to someone that might live elsewhere. But with my sector of students, I honestly can say at least 50%, if not more, are directly involved in production agriculture, which is very unique.
I mean, even where I student-taught in central Iowa that wasn’t the case for, I mean, there was probably only 30%, so I feel like, wow. I’m in it, is kinda how I feel.
Michael Arnold: Yeah. You know it from the inside out that’s amazing. And so you came to Western Christian, how long have you been at Western Christian High School?
Kylie Nettinga: This is my seventh year.
Michael Arnold: Okay. So I dunno, I think you would have been there when I visited, I think it’s been about four or five years since I was last there.
Developing an agricultural program at Western Christian
Michael Arnold: But you developed the agricultural program at Western Christian. Tell us a little bit about that. What did that look like? How did you make space for that? You know, how is that being received at your school?
Kylie Nettinga: Yeah. I think it’s really good to remind myself where I came from too. Just to lead into that a little bit.
Cause I, so if you look at the state of Iowa, I grew up in the southeast corner, an hour away from Illinois, an hour away from Missouri. And now I live, and I’m stuck, in a great way because I found my awesome husband, but now I am an hour from South Dakota, Minnesota, and Nebraska. And so that change right there. I will never forget the day that my dad goes, no, you should apply for Western Christian. And I was just like, you want me to move six hours away, away from my family, away from, at that time I thought maybe I would be able to be involved with doing more farming with my family and stuff like that.
And so I took a leap of faith and it was a total God thing. And so when I came here, I was a fresh spring chicken, right out of college, just very ready to go, excited. God had laid it on my heart, like you should start an ag program, but never in my wildest dreams did I think I would do it, and still be doing what I’m doing, at 22 years old.
And so when I came, really the big thing that got us going is if you are going to start an ag program, I want people that are involved in that to understand three big things. One, have people behind you to help you.
Being someone that did not grow up from here, I needed people right away. I needed to learn who my supporters were. I needed to learn where my farms are where I can take kids on tours. I need to know where my greenhouses are to get products, to plant our front beds. You need resources. You need to know where your people are at.
And then secondly, using those ag teachers that you know, or connecting with the, what we like to call it, ag teachers family. We really are a family. We genuinely have meetings together every year and we connect and we talk together all the time, because we get together with students at competitions and events. And when you combine getting to know your community, having support with other ag teachers, and then you have the fun of like, the kids are super excited, it just all starts to go together.
And there is, I did actually in my master’s degree put together a checklist of things to do, to start a program that I could go way more into that. But I would say it was a lot of hard work. Looking back on it now, the fruit of the labor with the students has just been phenomenal. Like, I wouldn’t change a thing. Yes, I was working 12 hours a day, but like where I was at, I was single; I was by myself. And what else? Like, God’s just like, this is your time. And so that was cool for me. And, but yeah, it’s a lot of work, but starting small is okay too.
Michael Arnold: Well, what you point to, as, you know, finding the people in the community that can support the program, but also finding the champions within the community to drive the program. I think those are, those are some pretty big takeaways. It doesn’t matter what you’re trying to do at the school level. You always need community. You always need champions. You can’t, it’s never a one man show. So that’s great advice.
Being an “agvocate” and the connection between faith and farming
Michael Arnold: I know – because you shared your blog with us, which will be going live here before the podcast goes, so we’ll link the blog to the, the description of the podcast for people to find it – but your blog title was “Why Agriculture Shapes Faith Development.” I thought that was a powerful title. And we want to get into that a little bit, but you use the term “agvocate.” I think it’s a mashup of “advocate” and “agriculture,” agricultural advocate. Unpack that term for us and tell us a little bit what it means.
Kylie Nettinga: Yeah. So that one came to mind at Iowa State. I think it was my third year there. They always have what they call CALS week, College of Agricultural and Life Sciences celebration, basically. And on the shirt that year they had #agvocate. And of course that’s when hashtags were a huge deal. I wonder if they even are anymore, I don’t know, but that’s where it came from. And so when I saw that, I was like, I really like that. Considering the fact that there are so many people that don’t know where their food comes from. That’s what really fired me up to do what I do, because that’s when I really realized, after I decided I wanted to be an ag teacher, when I hit Iowa State University with, at that time, a record-breaking 18,000-person class – now it’s probably more like 30 – but just how many people had no idea where their food came from.
And for me, teaching my students that that’s important to understand, but also to understand, even bigger than that, your food is provided by Christ alone. And I mentioned this a little bit in my blog. If it wasn’t for agriculture, you can’t survive. But even deeper than that, on the spiritual level, you cannot survive without Christ. And those connections that I’ve always kind of said, I live by the three F’s, faith, family, and farming. If you don’t have the faith to, and to know that your corn is going to come up, then how do you expect to – and I’m not talking about eating corn on the cob, but like, how do you expect to enjoy some of the byproducts that come from, for example, the leather in your seats, like, you need cattle to create leather in your seats to drive to school every day.
And that’s what I want people to understand, that Christ is so needed in every part of our agricultural and life existence. So that’s where that all started from. And that’s kinda my little soap box there.
Agriculture and the economy
Michael Arnold: Yeah, but in terms of advocating, ag, agvocating – I’m still trying to get that word right – you know, I think we’re all becoming more aware these days, with supply chain issues and inflation, just the central role that farmers and local producers play when it comes to the family budget. And maybe students don’t get that to the same extent that some of the adults do. When it comes down to the end of the month and you know, are we going to buy gas, or are we going to buy groceries this month? And yet, you know, farmers play a role in both of those.
Kylie Nettinga: Mm hm.
Michael Arnold: So have you seen, you know, I’m thinking of it on the consumer side as, as the recipient of all the hard work that goes into agriculture. What about on the other side, on the producer side, are farmers feeling the squeeze, you know, further up the line as well, and especially there in Iowa?
Kylie Nettinga: Yeah. That’s a great question. I would say, I’m trying to think big picture here, because every industry is a little bit different. Like the other day, my husband and I, his name is Michael, we were just talking about how the pork producers really haven’t been hit lately with inflation, but we’ve definitely seen milk prices [impacted], since we’re dairy people. And we’ve definitely seen beef [prices impacted]. We’ve seen corn, soybeans, and of course we all know gas has been crazy.
The perception of agriculture in today’s society
Kylie Nettinga: But as I think about it as a whole, I think what our producers that are producing the bread and butter on our tables, I think what’s really the thing that’s been the most detrimental for them, and this is going to sound crazy, but, their overall knowing that people care about what they’re doing, and their mental health – like there are so many farmers that are committing suicide, because the weight of producing for so many people and so many animals. I mean, if you think about it, in the state of Iowa, there’s five pigs for every one person, like that, that’s a lot of weight to carry. And I guess I just feel like agriculture today is being so attacked, that we are the worst people, that we are harmful to our animals, that we are creating genetically modified everything. And it’s like, well, are you thankful that you have food on your plate tonight? Because someone worked their butt off to get that there for you.
And I just feel like the view of a farmer today is like, yeah, we have a piece of hay in our mouth and we just putz around on our tractor and I’m like uh, no, it’s not how that works. And I’m the last person you will see harping on an animal because it’s not moving or something.
We all make mistakes. So that’s why we’re sinful people. That’s why we need Christ in all of this. But I think the view that our world today has on the American farmer just breaks my heart, and that’s got to change. And that’s why I gave a soap box the other day to my kids.
Like when you type in on Google, and you can try this too, if you want Michael, if you type in swine farming, the top five videos that show up, they’re ridiculous. They’re absolutely ridiculous. They’re not true. I grew up a pig farmer; that’s not what happens. And to me, that’s why we need to agvocate for what we’re doing, because otherwise our world is just going to keep thinking that chicken wings come from Walmart, like that’s not okay.
Michael Arnold: Well, and in our defense, as I try to bring the city boy perspective to this conversation, you know, a lot of times we’re aware that there are farms. We see the farms, we see the beautiful corn stalks or whatever it is as we’re driving down the highway, but we’re not usually confronted with the reality of farming until the wind blows the wrong direction, right? And the farmer’s putting fertilizer on the field, and then we have to deal with that stench, you know.
And so we kind of, we kind of are sanitized from the process. And even when we go to farms, we can visit farms and it’s a nice little sterile process. You know, we pet the sheep and then put hand sanitizer on, and then we feed the goats and put hand sanitizer, and then we go to the gift shop and buy all this prepackaged stuff that came from the local farm, you know. So we don’t have a true understanding of what farming is and what it brings to our conversations about civics and economics, and even history and geography all play a big role in agriculture, but also technology, I’m sure. And science and math and, you know, so agriculture really can be a core of so many things that we’re trying to do in our Christian schools.
Kylie Nettinga: Yeah. And I just want to affirm, too, that, I love, Michael, that you have taken the step to go and meet with farmers, because that’s the other thing, too. I feel like most people that are quote unquote “against ag” is because they haven’t even gotten out and talked to one and I’m just like, I promise we’re nice people. Like we’re not going to stand there and be like, all right, time to start butchering. Like that’s not what that looks like. And so you are a prime example of someone that we, as an agriculturalist, want to be able to help you and shepherd and show you what we get to do and what we enjoy doing, because yeah, you’re absolutely right. Like I grew up too being like, oh my goodness, it stinks out here today, but yet it’s like, okay, but where else is that going to go? We don’t want it in our water, obviously. And yeah, I just want to affirm that. Thank you.
Michael Arnold: Yeah, well, it’s always nice to go to those farms when they have those products, you know, the pies and the fresh vegetables and fruit, without realizing the hard work that goes into it.
Faith lessons in agricultural learning
Michael Arnold: But I love how in your blog, and we’re not going to try to just go through your entire blog post. People can read it for themselves and I’ll encourage them to do that. But you speak to the faith lessons that students can learn. And you already alluded to this a little bit through the agricultural program. And I just wondered if you would share, you know, maybe some of the biggest faith lessons you’ve seen students be able to learn as a result of their exposure to agricultural learning.
Kylie Nettinga: Yeah. So one good thing that, like, for example, for you, Michael, that you have working for you, is being in a city, being somewhere that you get to see multiple different demographics, you get to see different situations, different people groups. The students that I work with, we joke a lot that we live in the Sioux County bubble, and being someone that did not grow up here, I promise I feel like sometimes I’m the one that’s like, constantly popping the balloon, like, okay guys, you need to go experience some new things. You need to go spread the gospel. You need to talk about Jesus and realize that not everybody in Sioux County, Iowa does know Jesus, but you also need to understand that when you go out places and your name, Western Christian is on the back of your FFA jacket, you are easy setting yourself up for a way to be like, Hey, have you learned about Jesus?
And I’m not saying that it has to be that eloquent of a conversation. But one thing that I can think of is, I have, ugh, man, I could cry about her. She is the sweetest child ever. Not even, she’s a young woman! Holy cow. Her name is Emily, and she is a current student of mine. And she, when she was a freshman, reminded me so much of myself – just very shy, but was willing to try new things. And didn’t like to talk a lot. And now, sitting at senior status, she is so, I can’t even describe how much she has grown in four years in her communication skills, her leadership skills, her willingness to put herself out there in a way, like even just watching her from when we go to national convention in Indiana in Indianapolis from her freshman year to her senior year, how much more willing she is to ask questions, go up to people and learn about, you know, what do you do?
And then of those experiences, not just Emily, but with those students, they get to experience, like, okay, here’s something my kids don’t see: homeless people, like literally, you don’t see that here. And getting them to experience that and seeing kids be like, oh, maybe we should do something about that. Or another experience I can think about is just, we were at a restaurant and my president in my second year of FFA was like, “Hey, Mrs. Nettinga, there is a group of soldiers eating. We should pay for their bill.” And I was just like, wow, that is Jesus right now that you are listening to, and you are playing out. And that is really cool.
And so I guess I just feel like getting our students out of their bubble to realize that there’s a battlefield out there of people that, more importantly, don’t know Jesus, as much as it’s important that they don’t know about where their food comes from.
But, are they scared to share? I was too, absolutely. But I think it’s just neat to get them out in those experiences so they can have the opportunity to learn how to, how to bridge the gap between what I’m eating and why you need Jesus. I think that’s just really cool.
Michael Arnold: Yeah. And you already mentioned the fact that, you know, I mean, we need food to survive, but we need Jesus even more so to survive. And it’s interesting that Jesus compares himself to food and water, you know, and those essential elements.
Academic and social-emotional benefits of agricultural learning
Michael Arnold: You know, I’ve got two small kids and my wife and I were trying to think through our technology policy, you know, what do we want, how much technology we want our kids to have. And as we’re thinking about this and meditating on it, and this was kind of connected to the fact that you shared several scripture references in your blog about the spiritual truths that can be gleaned from farming and agricultural practices.
But one that came to mind, and it wasn’t on your list, so I want to share it with you and get your thoughts on it. First Thessalonians 4:11, we read where Paul tells the church at Macedonia, you know, learn to work with your own hands, and don’t be dependent on other people – learn to work with your own hands. And I don’t think he meant go and start a farm, necessarily. Although it was an agricultural community, definitely, that he was working with.
But in our mind, as we read that, like, okay, we could lean into technology, which is, like I said before, so sanitary, so clean, you know. Or we could teach our kids that it’s okay to get dirty. It’s okay to learn that your hands can produce things, that they can fix things, that you can be a steward of things and protect and provide for them. You can help them grow, and it’s not always easy and cut and dry like you have in a pre-scripted video game. It’s real life, and it’s messy. And just the benefit that that brings to not just spiritual lessons, but also social and emotional kinds of lessons that you can learn from being busy with your hands. Do you see that as well in agricultural sectors?
Kylie Nettinga: Yeah, absolutely. I really think there is something to that. And I just even think about small things that all of us teachers are trying to teach our kids. For example, why it’s important to take notes. We understand now, at least for me, especially writing something down, I’m going to remember that so much better. And I guess I feel when I see my students in the classroom, agriculture education talks a lot about hands-on learning. And yeah, we do a lot of that.
And so when I see a student, for example, in plant science, they made a hydroponic system, which is definitely something you could do in an urban school district. And so I’m watching these kids, their minds are just firing. And they create these hydroponic systems and they’ve grown lettuce. Like I went in there today and it’s like four inches tall. That is so cool. They’re growing lettuce. And they watched with their own hands putting this together and they learned the background knowledge of what is hydroponics and why is it helpful? Seeing them do that is so cool.
Or another example – I have kids that remind me of my dad a lot. My dad is actually a big reason why I went into ag. But a kid that thinks he’s not good at anything. And he comes in and he gets on the welder, and he produces something that is just beautiful. And I’m just like, that is amazing. And their smile is just, it’s what makes it, you know? Like seeing that happen is so important.
I mean, I’m guilty of it too. Like, we all need to be doing something with our hands, whether it’s actually putting fingers in the soil or it’s taking a jog or just getting outside, getting more opportunities to put practical, physical touch to something, I just think is really cool.
Michael Arnold: Yeah, well and those real life takeaways, the student who produces something beautiful in welding class, you know, that can be so affirming to them. Where I think this was maybe the point you were making, they can feel a little bit beat-up when they’re not able to succeed like they want to, or like they think they need to in some of their other classes, that sometimes those students can really benefit from hands-on, just basic creation, right? Like building something, producing something – pretty valuable.
Kylie Nettinga: Absolutely.
Why all students should have exposure to agricultural education
Michael Arnold: It sounds like, and I think I know the answer to this based on our previous conversation and your blog post and other things, but it sounds like you would expect every student to have the opportunity to get involved with agriculture, or the agricultural department at a school. Every school should have an agricultural department.
Why do you think that? Why do you think that’s important, and how would you, how would you sell that to a school who may not necessarily be in an agricultural community?
Kylie Nettinga: Right. That’s a good question. I definitely agree that there should be an opportunity for every student to take an ag class. However, should it be something that’s like, required? No. But I do wonder, in like 30 years, are we going to have students that legit don’t know where their chicken nuggets come from? Because I think that’s a problem, so that’s another can of worms. But like it’s okay to encourage starting a program.
I think the coolest thing to think about is, the United States of America, we live in one of the most geographically different countries in the world. I mean, think about it. Like you can go way up to Minnesota and you can get your butt frozen off, which I am in that sector. I do not like being cold, but it’s fine. And you can, for example, experience ice fishing, let’s say, and maybe you have a fishery. And say you live in the Minneapolis region. I actually have a really good friend that teaches there, and something that they thrive on is they have lots of, I would say, more like forestry-type agricultural products around them. So they really dig into more of the plant side of things.
But then if you go down to Florida, which, this might surprise you, but Florida is actually one of the highest-producing agricultural states, especially in beef, as odd as that is. But you go to, let’s say, let’s say you’re in Orlando, Florida, though. In my opinion, I’m thinking, Wow, you could be growing like oranges. You could be growing grapefruit. You can, think of all the hydroponic systems you could do. I mean, even just labs about like, how can we create fresh water out of sea salt water? Or, oh my goodness. There’s a school here in Iowa, this is not my vibe, but there’s a school here in Iowa – you could definitely do this in Florida – they raise alligators. Like who does that?
But, I mean, that’s something. Or like, well, Texas has the most FFA programs in the United States, but there’s just so many different ways you can go with things. Or like the craze of, let’s say, almond milk, and the jokes about that. But for reals though, in California, that’s a big part of some other FFA chapters, is just, I mean, it’s, it’s right there.
Or here’s a great one too. Like you said, you grew up and live in Michigan, right? Yeah. Okay. So like, you know, I hope everybody knows, like that’s where a lot of our cars are manufactured, right? You could totally have a program that is geared towards automotive. I mean, we have some kids right now that competed in an automotive competition. Like they love that stuff, and that’s totally ag-related. You could have more of a machinery sector type of ag program there.
So I think it’s just, again, going back to, know your community, get to know people. And hopefully the people that have asked to hire you before that have done their research. They’ve understood what it takes to start a program, funding you know, like things like, for example, here’s another thing, ag teachers are paid for summers. And it’s because of FFA, because an ag teacher is a year-round position, because you are dealing with fairs, you’re dealing with competitions. I think that’s really important for people to understand, is that there is the backbone of support from the community. And then of course, like, everything else will just kind of start to fall into place.
Michael Arnold: Well, what you just described was, as I understand it – this is kind of eye-opening for me – is that agriculture is not just farming. Agriculture is literally what makes production in your region unique and tapping into that, it’s about being connected to the community. It is about understanding who we are as a neighborhood, as a state, as a geographic region. And what a valuable connection, just from that perspective, to help students feel connected to their region, to their, you know, subculture, to their economic realities within their area. I think that’s really valuable.
Kylie Nettinga: And then it just makes you so proud. Like, I don’t mean to sound corny, pun intended. But like, I love that I grew up on a pig farm and I love that I’m married to a family that loves dairy farming, I mean that’s just incredible. And so like, if you’re a farmer in Kansas, shoot, be proud that you raise wheat, like that is awesome.
And then like the community thing that you talked about, that’s the other cool thing about being a Christian and getting to have an FFA chapter, is you get to bless your community with what you’re doing. So for example, one thing that we do is we, every fall, when harvest is going, we give something back to our farmers, whether it’s candy bar or a lunch, something like that. And that’s where, like you also get to bless people. That’s what I love about FFA too.
Michael Arnold: Yeah. There is definitely a strong community component. So when we think about misconceptions, one of those we just unpacked, was that, you know, an agricultural program is about farming, you know, future farmers of America. That’s not even a thing anymore. FFA is so much more broad than that.
Technology and agriculture
Michael Arnold: So I think another misconception that I’ve often operated under is that as educators, you know, we feel like we have to prepare our students for their future. You know, the statement, kindergarten teachers are trying to prepare their students for jobs that haven’t even been invented yet. And I’m not saying that that’s not true as a statement or as a belief, but sometimes we embrace that to believe that we have to lean into technology or we have to lean into other kinds of electives, and maybe agriculture is a thing of the past.
You mentioned Orlando, and I thought of Disney world, they have that carousel of progress. Have you seen it, where you get to visit different scenes of technology advancements throughout the decades? And most of those are indoors. Like here’s a room with, you know, the first hot iron and the telephone and things. And we kind of believe that progress is stepping away from agriculture for those of us that aren’t involved with it, because that’s a thing of the past, it’s a dying art, it’s a dying craft. So we don’t have time in our catalog to teach it.
How would you respond to that directly? I think you’ve already, you know, made some pretty strong, or offered some pretty strong insights that push back against that. But what would you say to that mindset, that we have to pick and choose between agriculture and more useful, you know, electives or other types of courses to offer students?
Kylie Nettinga: Yeah, I feel like, I guess I almost feel like God spent so much, so much, I mean, not energy, God doesn’t grow weary, but, okay, you think about Genesis one, two, and three. He created all that in six days. If we think that agriculture is a thing of the past then aren’t we kind of putting God in a box and saying, well, he used to do it that way, so we don’t have to do it that way anymore. And that’s probably pretty bold, I guess, maybe to say, but I guess I also feel like maybe that means that we’re not doing a good enough job as an agriculturalist sharing with people the advancements that we’re making.
So for example, if we’re not teaching – I mean, I don’t believe that every kid needs to know, for example, that in 1950 we were farrowing, so that means birthing, about six piglets a sow, and now we’re birthing 10 to 15 per sow. Or I don’t need everybody in the world to know that we are producing more corn than we ever have per acre. But I do think that if we put a hand up to saying, we’re not providing ag classes in school, I think we’re shortchanging ourselves to understand the growth that physically is happening around us.
And that means then we’re not giving our students the opportunity to understand, physically, where their food is coming from. And I know that comes back to that point again, but, I just feel like, then we’re not giving the opportunity for students to have the physical touch of something, because we are on this boat, we all get addicted to technology as far as like, my phone. I mean, who is not guilty of that.
Michael Arnold: Yeah.
Kylie Nettinga: I think agriculture education gives kids a time where they come in during the day and they know, I’m going to be doing something tangible with my hands. Cause yeah, there’s so many technologies in agriculture that I’m like – well first, okay, here’s a great example. My husband works with robotic dairies, so Lely robots out of the Netherlands. He helps farmers use those robots to the best precision to produce the highest quality milk and the most pounds of milk. And, you know, that’s definitely tangible technology, but I think, again, it’s just not something that, we must not be sharing well enough, you know, because if it is something that people think is in the past, then that’s something that we get to change.
Michael Arnold: Well, that is the other misconception, is that it’s either technology classes or agriculture classes, at least in my mind. And I’m speaking as, you know, a former curriculum director. I’m not in that role right now, but it’s like, well, if we have to pick, we’ve only got so many hours in a day. We’ve only got so many resources. We’ve only got so many teachers. If we’re going to teach technology or agriculture, well, our kids have to use technology. There’s no way around it. And yet what you’re describing is that technology can integrate, or has integrated with, agriculture, that there doesn’t necessarily need to be a separation there. And maybe even, and you can agree or disagree with this, but that agriculture is the natural application of our technology, because it’s so central to who we are and what we need.
Kylie Nettinga: I would absolutely agree with that, because yeah, like I think of, so for example, in, let’s say, in a computer apps class, they are learning about QuickBooks or something. Well, every farmer I know uses QuickBooks. Or let’s say in math class, you need to learn how to get a slope equation on your calculator. Well, that’s something that you’re looking at on the monitor in your tractor to decide, do I plant here or not? Because it’s super wet here according to my data from last year. I mean, farmers are using data out the wazoo in their tractors.
But to get out of the production world a little bit, I also think about like, my brother-in-law works at the co-op and he’s the CPA there. And he’s constantly dealing with technology and numbers and making sure that registers are working at the gas station there.
And, so often, yeah, I do have kids that walk in, like this is ag class, we don’t need to learn how to write a sentence. We don’t need to be able to do math. And I’m like, ooh, well, hate to tell ya, but ag is where it all comes together, man. And the older I get, the more I’m like, yes, my ag teacher is right. I do need to know how to figure out the slope of something because I’m using it to figure out like, how should I create this landscaping over here with this slope that I have? Like, there’s just so many tangible connections.
But I could see why, if our culture has a view of, it’s just, we got a piece of straw in our mouth and we sat on our tractors, I could see why people would think it’s a thing of the past. So yeah, that’s just where there’s our word again. We need to agvocate better.
Advice for starting an agriculture program
Michael Arnold: Well, so your ticket, actually it was from Sarah at your school. Sarah Wilson submitted a ticket to Curriculum Trak support, asking for some input on how Curriculum Trak could better serve the needs of the agricultural program. And I don’t know if we fully unpacked that at that time, but as soon as the ticket came in, I’m thinking, no. The real question is, how can Western Christian help other Christian schools advance their ag program? Let’s do this.
And I think the reason I thought that at the time is simply because, one, I’m very ignorant, so I don’t know much about it. Two, I do recognize that agriculture is that real life experience, right? Like seeing things, the cycle of life, you know, conservation of our resources, stewardship of creation, everything else we do in our classrooms should fit into what we try to do in agriculture. And if we can’t make those connections, then we’re not really serving our students very well. And so that’s why I wanted to invite you on.
And so, as you think about your process there at Western Christian, what advice – and I think you started off with some of this, but what advice would you give to a school who wants to lean into this more now that they’ve heard some of your thoughts, and how would they get started? Maybe starting with that mindset of, we have to make room for it somewhere. How do you get started with making room for more agricultural training and learning at your school?
Kylie Nettinga: Yeah, that’s tough. And I even feel like, you know, what school doesn’t deal with, like, scheduling situations and what’s the best, do we do block? Do we do eight periods? Do we do six periods? Like, I think that’s something that all of us struggle with. But I guess I’m thinking, if we’re looking at making sure that all of our students are getting the science credits they need, the math credits that they need, the business credits that they need, for example; one good thing is like, I teach animal science, plant science, natural resources, and those all count as a science course. But maybe if you’re considering starting one, I would first think about, what does my community thrive on when it comes to a commodity?
So like I shared about the Florida thing, you got alligators, like, could that be something that you niche on? Like, could you get into that or niche on, I don’t know, people say it two different ways, but like, could that be something that you lean into?
And maybe it’s just like, here’s another great thing too about Sarah: before we officially had an ag program, Sarah taught animal science at Western Christian, and that just planted a seed. And at that time too, and I would think Sarah would probably say the same thing, she didn’t grow up on a farm or anything like that, but she grew up in Sioux County. And so like, that was something that was around. When she opened that opportunity, she opened the opportunity for students to be like, Hey, I raise pigs. Hey, I raise cattle. And from there you have contacts of people that’s like, okay, so if I call up, let’s say the Granstras. Do you think they’d be able to hook us up with, say you want to start a school farm, could they donate to us, maybe one steer, or something like that. Do we have a, could we maybe call up like Countryside Gardens and be like, Hey, could you help us with learning how to arrange plants and our bedding at school?
So I would say, first figure out what could be the passion at this school. And it doesn’t have to stay there, I wouldn’t say that like all of my kids love beef or something like that. But I would say, when you can start smaller – and then another whole can of worms is kids’ projects that they get to do outside of school that relate back to what they’re doing in school too. But start there, just start your classes, and the FFA side of things, that will just fall into place.
But I think the other thing too is, at the head of all this, you have to find an educator that is willing to do the work. Cause, I’m so humbly saying this, but I mean, it’s a lot of work – but it’s worth it.
How does FFA comes into play in an agriculture program?
Michael Arnold: And the FFA side, that’s an extra layer, right? Tell me about that. Is that an afterschool, outside of school, during summer, kind of a club that students can be a part of? What does that look like?
Kylie Nettinga: Yeah, that’s a great question. And I’ll explain it this way. So think of a cupcake. At the base of your cupcake, you got the cake part, right? That’s what I call agriculture. And that is what you’re learning in the classroom. You have to have a basis, you have to have your cake to have a cake. So that’s where you’re learning your new knowledge. The frosting then that you put on your cupcake, I call it, those are called supervised agricultural experiences, or the buzz word that everybody likes right now, work-based learning. Those are their projects that they’re doing outside of school. So for example, when I was in high school, mine was sheep production. So that’s applying what you learned in your cake in class.
So learning in animal science about sheep and breeds and stuff like that, applying it with my frosting, and then FFA, that’s the sprinkles. That’s the fun stuff. That’s the stuff that kids get to go on adventures outside of state. They get to compete. So let’s say, here’s me again. So I’m taking animal science. That’s my cake. I raised sheep. That’s my icing. The sprinkles, I did livestock judging, that’s something with FFA.
So what also makes an ag program intricate and so different is, to have a good cupcake, you have to have them all. And so when somebody says, well, can you just do their competition practices during class? I say no, because I want to teach them some things about plants during class today.
And so my day often looks like, I will have some competition practice in the morning. My kids are very, very heavily involved in sports, like many of our Christian schools are, I feel like. And so that’s usually how my day goes. And if there’s a time during the day where for example, my reporter, she’ll be in a lot, working on her scrapbook for a competition. So I guess to answer your question, Michael, it’s a cupcake altogether, and it’s hard to balance all of it. It really is.
Michael Arnold: And yet that’s so valuable though, too, because that encourages those real-life connections outside of the classroom. And so having an organization like FFA to support those and to provide some perks, those sprinkles can be really, really helpful.
Finding resources for an agricultural program
Michael Arnold: So, what other resources would you recommend, if I’m a school that I want to dig into this a little bit deeper? Certainly check out FFA. Is it just ffa.org?
Kylie Nettinga: It is.
Michael Arnold: And are there other resources that you’d recommend for educators who would like to lean into this a little bit more?
Kylie Nettinga: Yeah. So first, even before you go to ffa.org, figure out, who are your ag programs around you? Because more than likely if they’re with the ag ed family, they love to help you. So reach out to those around you. I remember when I first moved here, veteran ag teacher at Unity Christian, which is just down the road, Mr. Benson – I talked to him right away. Like, what did you do? Please help me. And so reach out to them.
Secondly, there is a state, it’s not the advisor, but he’s like the state association guy, and or gal I should say; reach out to that person. Cause they will also provide you with a checklist.
You can always reach out to me. Like I said, I created a checklist in my master’s program too. But those are some great places to start, and find people to yoke with, dig into your officer team – ooh, officer team. That’s a whole nother can of worms, but having a group of seven to eight leaders that are students to walk with you is so important because you physically cannot do all of those roles. Because remember, it’s student – I had to remind myself this a lot the first two years – it’s student-led. It’s not me.
And now I’m at a point where it’s like, I’ve got the banquet plan. That’s awesome. I don’t need to worry about it. Like they’re doing what they know they’re supposed to do because it’s student-led, and that’s, again, a whole nother can of worms, but find yourself somehow, you know, connect with other teachers before you come into the school. Hey, who would make a good officer team? And obviously they have to be wanting to be FFA members. But for me, that first year with that group of kids, along with a really strong community behind me, is what drove the process.
Michael Arnold: Yeah, that’s awesome. Wow there’s so much more to unpack here. So I’m grateful to hear you say “Reach out to me,” and I’m sure people will. So check your inbox in the coming days. But the idea of reaching out to other people and the fact that people within that community want to be helpful, I think is really cool. So that’s great encouragement.
Let’s just kind of wrap things up here. We’re just about out of time.
The future of the ag program at Western Christian
Michael Arnold: And I just want to ask you a question, you know, what are your hopes and dreams for your ag program there at Western? What do you hope to accomplish, or what’s next on the horizon as you think about, you know, I’m sure it’s a step-by-step process, but what’s coming next for you as you continue to grow at Western?
Kylie Nettinga: Yeah, that’s a great question and something that’s actually been on my current officer team’s heart for like this whole year. And I say that because I have a group right now that has just been really intentional about thinking about what’s next. And I love that. They’re all high schoolers. There is nothing more that brings me joy than seeing my seven- to eight-officer team members be like, Hey, we should do that. Or, Hey, before we elect a new secretary, we should make sure that she knows, or he knows, how to do this. Like, that is so cool when they take the initiation to reach out like, Hey, you would be good at this.
And I guess I say that because we’re sitting at a point right now where we have a chapter that is almost a hundred members, which is crazy, considering the fact that our school is not even 300 people, like that’s nuts. And so where we’re sitting right now, we – and it’s all God, I give him all the credit – but I think that where we had our, as we head forward, we might need to look at expanding our space. And then further than that, you know, maybe we need another teacher to help add more courses that our students can be taking.
I think another thing that’s good for any ag program to look at, too, once they get 4 or 5, 6, 7 years in, is developing a FFA alumni group. Oh, I didn’t even talk about ag advisory council! Those are the people that help you a lot with your ag program. Have a good group of people there too, but I can talk about that more later. Having an alumni association to support what you’re doing as a teacher.
Because the big thing is to remind yourself as a teacher, you also need to be able to create high-quality lessons – and I’m not saying that every lesson is perfect. We all know that, but, and I am definitely saying that is not true for me, but when they can recognize that your ag teacher still needs to be able to teach, your teacher still needs to be able to be a coach, your teacher still needs to be able to encourage and be a leader. When more of those, when your team starts coming together, that’s where we are moving forward, in the sense of, more ag classes, more space, and continue to grow leaders.
For example, this past year we had to grow in our greenhouse department, because we have a greenhouse – now it’s three years old. And we now have a greenhouse committee; that was not something we had before. Or we just got the opportunity to help out with our 20 acres of land that our school owns. Do we need a committee for that?
So that’s kind of where we’re sitting now, is we recognize that we’re going to keep growing, and how are we going to meet the needs of every kid? Cause I think that’s what’s deep on my heart is just, okay, God, how can I get to know this kid? And what can I find in ag that would interest him to grow his potential and grow his faith in the end. So that was a long answer, but that’s where that goes.
Michael Arnold: No, that was a great answer. It’s kind of helpful to kind of see behind the curtain of what’s going on there at Western and some of the challenges that you are still facing – not challenges, but, but well maybe they are challenges. Good challenges, three or four or five years into your program.
So this is where I said, as I’ve listened to you and I’m learning about agriculture, I’m realizing that the agricultural program is nothing like what I thought it would be. It’s actually a great way to pull so many threads that of things that we hope to do in our faith-based schools together.
You just talked about an alumni committee, you have a student committee, you’re raising up student leaders. You have, you know, property management and planning, and community support, faith integration. You know, we’re doing this as stewards of God’s creation, connecting with our community, connecting with our culture, our subculture, our geographic region, what’s going on here. Just so many great threads.
Hopes for the future of agriculture
Michael Arnold: And yet as I sit here from my vantage point, being able to work with so many schools around the world, which I’m thankful for, very few have an agricultural program. And so I just wanted to present those facts to you and say, what are your hopes for agriculture within the faith-based school movement? What would you hope to see in three to five years?
Kylie Nettinga: Yeah. for sure. And that amazes me, and it’s like ignorance on my end too. Like, growing up in that, you just assume everybody does, but that’s just not the case.
And I guess I would say, I would hope that as, we all know that there’s a lot of things going on in the United States right now. We all know that there’s a lot of global hurt right now. Of course, too, like with Ukraine we’re seeing the backlash of what’s happening with our commodities, like we mentioned earlier, of gas and corn and whatnot.
I think if we can remember as Christians that we get to have joy in whatever it might be, whether it’s producing something, it’s creating something tangible and physical that our students can feel and work with. I think as Christians, that’s only going to grow us to be better leaders, because that’s, what’s so cool about FFA is we’re growing students to be leaders in their communities, and we’re leading kids to see what they’re good at and have an opportunity to showcase that in a space that maybe they’ve never felt like they could be good at that before.
And I think as Christian schools, yeah, there’s always going to be that kid that hates school. We all know that kid. And those are the kids that we stay up thinking about at night, right? But I think the more opportunities we can provide for our kids to see what else is out there, to understand that there’s more to this world than you being good at math or you being good at whatever it might be, I think we’re really going to ricochet a huge movement of people seeing again, oh, wow, I understand why God calls us to persevere. I understand why God calls us to work with our hands, whatever that might be. And I think it’s just going to take a lot of, we have to go back to our roots a little bit and literally look at what God started in Genesis 1 and what he continues to do as we continue to live in this fallen world.
Michael Arnold: Great.
Michael Arnold: Well, Kylie, thank you so much for joining us today, sharing your heart for agriculture, or should I say your heart to see how agriculture can help us love and serve Jesus? I think that’s really what you’ve unpacked for us today. So thank you for that. It’s been very informative and educational for me, and I can only imagine the great things going on there at Western Christian as a result of your efforts. So blessings on your future efforts. Thanks again for joining us. And we look forward to hearing more great things, out of the agricultural department there at Western Christian.
Kylie Nettinga: Thank you so much, Michael. It’s been a joy.
Michael Arnold: Nice to have you.