COOLIDGE — Whether it’s a love of animals or a thirst for understanding how agriculture shapes our lives, there are plenty of reasons why FFA is a popular elective among students throughout Pinal County.
The program provides students with an abundance of hands-on experience beyond the on-campus barn or show pen. Members learn to raise animals and care for crops, but they also hone skills such as leadership and public speaking.
The ongoing pandemic, however, has forced FFA advisers to find creative ways of providing those opportunities to students. For local FFA chapters like the Coolidge High School program, the impact of COVID-19 — and the subsequent changes COVID-19 brought about — were seen almost immediately.
The effect was especially felt by FFA members who were ready to show their animals at the Pinal County Fair in April.
Jadee Rohner is the adviser of Coolidge FFA. She also serves on the Pinal County Junior Livestock Committee Board of Directors. Her position, she said, gave her some insight behind the Central Arizona Fair Association’s decision to cancel the Pinal County Fair just a day before Gov. Doug Ducey announced a 10-person or less restriction on public gatherings.
“We were the first fair in Arizona that was faced with (the decision to) cancel or go,” Rohner said. “The next day when (Ducey) came down with that latest mandate, we felt a little bit more affirmed in our actions, but there were so many people that were angry and upset with the decision that we made, which would have been made for us eventually if we didn’t make it ourselves.”
In the days leading up to and following that decision, the pandemic created ample uncertainty for FFA members. With the fair canceled, many were left wondering how they would show and, ultimately, sell the projects they had spent the majority of the year working on.
“It was hard from an adviser’s perspective to be the positive beacon in that, because, especially when it came to fair and their projects, you work so hard and your end goal is ‘we don’t know? Hold on, we’re going to figure it out?’” Rohner said. “There’s a lot of things that go through their minds and trying to be that stable person that has a handle on it and is going to give them direction when you’re just as lost as everyone else is really challenging.”
Following the decision to cancel the fair, the PCJLC organized a virtual showing and auction instead.
“They do virtual auctions for all different types of heavy equipment, for livestock back East and in the West to buy animals of extreme high caliber, (but) this was just really the first time it had been done for a fair,” Rohner said. “It was really a neat experience and I think that there were a lot of people that enjoyed being in their living room.”
There were several positives that came out of the virtual format, Rohner noted. While the change delayed the auction by about a week, which caused some financial hardships for some members as they typically have so much budgeted for feed, the extra week also gave students an opportunity to get their animals closer to their weight goal.
Students may not have made as much profit as they traditionally have at in-person auctions, but the virtual show allowed for more varied auction participants. People from states like New York logged on to purchase animals in the virtual auction, Rohner said, with most then donating the animal back.
The virtual platform even enabled extended family living out of state to purchase animals.
The experience is one PCJLC is taking a cue from. The committee is planning to hold both an in-person and virtual auction for the 2021 Pinal County Fair.
But beyond the virtual auction, the pandemic’s effects are still being felt by the FFA program. The new school year began virtually, leaving the program instructors actively seeking new ways to make the high school’s agriculture course and the FFA program engaging for students.
“I’m trying to make sure that I’m doing the best that I can for my students and trying to do the best that I can to make my classes still interactive and fun for students in ways that they (can) still get out of it what they would have gotten out of it in person,” Paige Gangloff, the program’s other adviser, said.
Gangloff is a first-year instructor in the program, replacing former adviser Elizabeth Rico.
Gangloff said she has managed to keep activities fun for students by creating engaging review games or even giving out homework passes or similar prizes as a reward for whoever gets the highest scores on the reviews.
Keeping her classes interactive was also an important priority for Rohner as well, something she has incorporated by using resources like Quizlet and Kahoot!, and even organizing a virtual scavenger hunt using her Bitmoji Classroom. Each week, students who find the hidden item receive extra credit.
The idea, however, extends beyond simply making the material covered in the daily lessons engaging. Incorporating platforms like the Bitmoji Classroom also help the instructors develop connections with their students, Rohner said.
At the start of the school year, Rohner and Gangloff planned to deliver kits for some of the course’s various units as one way to supply hands-on activities, like cultivating seeds, to students.
The plan, however, changed in September as CUSD students were able to return for in-person schooling twice a week. Going forward, the instructors hope that students will now have the opportunity to participate in some of the hands-on experiences they may have missed out on.
Even with the part-time return to in-person teaching, however, the pandemic is still in full swing — and with that the challenges continue.
Earlier this year, the Arizona Association FFA and the National FFA Organization canceled all activities for 2020, which provide opportunities for students to compete, refine their leadership skills and travel. The cancellations have required program advisers to think out of the box so that the FFA can continue to be exciting for students.
Rohner and Gangloff have ideas, which include hosting virtual chapter meetings that would allow students to participate in different activities such as tie-dying shirts at home and showing off their creations to their fellow chapter members in a virtual fashion show or carving pumpkins with fellow members virtually. The necessary items, like the T-shirt and tie-dye kits or the pumpkins, would be provided by the chapter.
And while students may not be able to participate in state and national FFA events in person, students do have a chance to hone their leadership skills virtually. Emily Schmitt, a senior in the program, is among the participants in the virtual Arizona Association FFA State Leadership Conference, the Chapter Officer Leadership Training and Arizona FFA camp.
“FFA is my heart, and I enjoy doing FFA, and it’s something I want to continue doing,” she said. “So I talked to Mrs. Rohner and I’ve (asked) ‘is there anything I can do to continue to do stuff virtually? Because I still would like to be as active as possible.’”
Though far from how she hoped to be spending her senior year as an FFA member, the experience has opened Schmitt’s eyes to new ways of engaging her peers in the chapter.
“There’s so much that we can do virtually to get members to be engaged,” she said. “We can do Instagram and Facebook interactive posts on the stories and have prizes and different stuff like that... I’m just trying to find a way for the new members that are coming in to get the most out of their experience.”
Although the program is focused on moving forward, there are opportunities that students have missed out on over the past six months that Rohner knows nothing will ever replace. She is especially reminded of that reality when she thinks about the program’s first team in decades to earn first place for junior livestock judging.
The group won top spot in the previous school year but never got the opportunity to compete at nationals — a goal they were eagerly striving toward.
Schmitt was on the winning team and will return again this year. She noted that in order to qualify for nationals this year, the team will have to compete once again at the Arizona Association FFA Livestock Evaluation Career Development Event.
But one of their team members will not be returning. Now a freshman in college, Antonio Ortega, who made up the fourth member of their team, can no longer compete with them.
“I’m very sad that we couldn’t experience national convention as a team because I know we worked really hard last year to get to where we got,” Schmitt said.