FFA at the State Fair

For several teachers and FFA chapters from across the state, the Iowa State Fair is more than just corn dogs and carnival rides. It’s 11 days of celebration and skill development in agriculture education. Turn around at any point at the fairgrounds in Des Moines, and you can find the presence of FFA student leadership and learning.

Over 250 FFA student chapters are participating in this year’s “Best Days Ever” Iowa State Fair. Activities for students include exhibits and other projects in agriculture such as floraculture (flower and ornamental plant cultivation), horticulture, livestock, mechanics, ag photography and more. Students can also be found working as ushers for events at the grandstand during the fair. Through these activities, students hone technical and professional skills while also providing exposure for FFA in general.

FFA at the State Fair

“You can’t go to the Iowa State Fair and not bump into one of the many FFA chapters participating in events,” said Matthew Eddy, state FFA adviser and agriculture education consultant at the Iowa Department of Education. “It’s a great representation of how FFA and Iowa schools provide opportunities for students to learn valuable skills through hands-on experiences.”

One exciting experience will feature FFA members from Waukee Community School District and Dowling Catholic High School. A group of 40 student leaders will run a veterinary camp for youth in grades 4-12. Camp attendees will each receive a stethoscope and first aid kit for animals and will learn different parts of animal science.

“This is such a great opportunity for both the kids coming to camp and my students serving as leaders,” said Cindy Snell, FFA adviser for Waukee. “The FFA leaders can teach more about animal science and animal health and welfare to the younger kids while also reinforcing their own knowledge. I know my FFA students are going to learn more if they have to teach it and answer questions.”

An estimated 360 camp participants will join in the free vet experience with Waukee. Vet camp sessions are two hours long and are held twice a day for four days at the fair. Participants will get an up-close experience in activities like learning about how to conduct a physical exam, what to feed animals and dissecting beef hearts. For these camp experiences, FFA student leaders receive assistance from expert teachers and professionals in the field.

FFA at the State Fair

“It’s a collaborative effort with the vet community, Iowa State University veterinary students, Des Moines Area Community College vet tech students and former FFA members,” Snell said. “It’s wonderful to see past Waukee students who went on to study veterinary science come back and mentor our current students for the camp.”

FFA students from North Polk Community School District will also focus their fair time on working with animals. Nearly 30 students from this chapter will help to maintain the famous Avenue of Breeds and will work with livestock such as cattle, horses, pigs, sheep, goats, poultry and even a yak.

FFA at the State Fair

“Our kids are in charge of feeding, watering, walking the animals in the morning and evening and also chaperoning the pens overnight,” said Jamie Waddingham, FFA adviser for North Polk. “These students also have to work with the public, answering questions on breeds, feedings and lifespans. This experience helps develop communications and public relations skills and working together as a team.”

The North Polk FFA chapter has been involved with the Avenue of Breeds since 1978, and although the fair is only 11 days long, the work requires much preparation and learning before the start of the fair.

“We have some kids who haven’t worked with livestock before, so we prepare them on how to properly care, handle and feed animals,” Waddingham said. “The students are also responsible for sending out information and tickets to breeders and helping set things up for the livestock prior to the fair.”

Along with the many animal exhibits and projects at the fair, plant science is also a feature for many FFA chapters. The FFA students from the Bondurant-Farrar Community School District are in their third year of tending the official garden at the Iowa State Fairgrounds and are excited for this year’s salsa-themed garden.

“The students decided that part of our gardening will feature tomatoes, onions, habanero peppers, cilantro, basil and other things that can make a good salsa,” said Caitlin Remington, FFA adviser for Bondurant-Farrar. “Our garden will also focus on the history of corn, taking a look at where we started from in the field to where we are today.”

FFA at the State Fair

The garden is located on the north side of the fairgrounds, and 35 Bondurant-Farrar students will take shifts every day between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. to manage and harvest the garden, oversee pest control and answer questions from fairgoers. Many lessons from the classroom will be applied to the students’ work in the fair garden.

“As part of their final project, we started talking about what we wanted to grow in last year’s plant science class,” Remington said. “They had to propose a plan, research plants and growing seasons and see which plants would survive during a hot Iowa summer in an unconventional growing environment like the fairgrounds.”

Iowa’s FFA chapters will definitely be busy during the Iowa State Fair, but the students are well-prepared to meet with thousands of people daily and continue learning new skills. In fact, the only thing that may be a challenge is the notorious fair-time weather. 

“I just hope it stays cool,” Waddingham said. “Either way, though, hot or cold, we hope to see many people visit and see what we can do.”

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