“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’ve lived 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 would say for my community, 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, whose family has 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.
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.
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.
So, you grew up doing 4-H and FFA in high school and things like that with 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 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 of the students there at Western Christian are directly related to farming or agriculture in some way, shape, or form?
Kylie Nettinga: 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. There was probably only 30%.
Michael Arnold: Yeah. You know it from the inside out, and that’s amazing. And so how long have you been at Western Christian High School?
Kylie Nettinga: This is my seventh year.
Developing an agricultural program at Western Christian
Michael Arnold: 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.
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’m stuck, in a great way because I found my awesome husband, an hour from South Dakota, Minnesota, and Nebraska. I will never forget the day that my dad goes, “You should apply for Western Christian. And I was just like, you want me to move six hours away, away from my family? At that time I thought maybe I would be able to be involved with doing more farming with my family.
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 at 22 years old did I think I would do it, and still be doing what I’m doing.
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.
And then secondly, using those ag teachers that you know, or connecting with the, as 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, you have the fun of the kids are super excited, it just all starts to go together.
And third 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. 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. 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. It’s never a one man show. So that’s great advice.
Being an “agvocate” and the connection between faith and farming
Michael Arnold: In your blog article, “Why Agriculture Shapes Faith Development,” 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 really liked it. 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 know that your corn is going to come up, then how do you expect to enjoy some of the byproducts that come from, for example, the leather in your seats, 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 or 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.
So you have seen on the consumer side 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 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 Michael and I 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, but 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.
When you type in on Google “swine farming,” the top five videos that show up are 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, and 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 on, 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. So agriculture really can be at the 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 promise we’re nice people. We’re not going to stand there and be like, “All right, time to start butchering.” 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.
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 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 to places and your name, Western Christian, is on the back of your FFA jacket, you are easily setting yourself up to be like, ‘Hey, have you learned about Jesus?'”
And here’s something my kids don’t see: homeless people. Literally, you don’t see that here. Or another experience I can think about is when 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 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, 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. I Thessalonians 4:11, we read where Paul tells the church at Macedonia to 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 dried, 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.
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, and their minds are just firing. And they create these hydroponic systems and they’ve grown lettuce. I went in there today and it’s like four inches tall. That is so cool. They’re growing lettuce! And with their own hands put this together and they learned the background knowledge of what is hydroponics and why it’s 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.
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: Those real life takeaways, like 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 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 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?
I think the coolest thing to think about is we live in one of the most geographically different countries in the world. I mean, think about it. 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 forestry-type agricultural products around them. So they really dig into more of the plant side of things.
But then you go down to Florida, which is actually one of the highest-producing agricultural states, especially in beef, as odd as that is. But let’s say you’re in Orlando, Florida, though. In my opinion, you could be growing oranges. You could be growing grapefruit. Think of all the hydroponic systems you could do!
Or Texas has the most FFA programs in the United States. Or like the craze of, let’s say, almond milk, and the jokes about that. But in California, that’s a big part of some of their FFA chapters.
Or here’s a great one too. Like you said, you grew up and live in Michigan, 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.
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. 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 if you’re a farmer in Kansas, shoot, be proud that you raise wheat, like that is awesome.
Michael Arnold: As you’ve been talking 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 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. 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. 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 before.
And I think as Christian schools, 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 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: Well, Kylie, thank you so much for joining us today, sharing 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.