"Yes, and" in Experiential Learning
Agriculture is shifting and valuable student experiences are shifting along with it.
The people I meet in agriculture and FFA consistently fuel me with hope.
A few weeks ago, I sat in the corner of a hotel meeting room as about twenty state FFA officers from across the country started to hash out delegate committee work. Delegate committees are a crucial aspect of our organization's student-led nature: delegates from each state come together in six separate committees and each committee is directed to make recommendations within a certain area of focus. As these state officers talked through the current landscape for experiential learning opportunities in agricultural education, I couldn’t help but feel this deep sense of hope for what is to come.
In agricultural education, we tend to use the terms “traditional” and “non-traditional” when talking about Supervised Agricultural Experiences (SAEs), our framework for experiential learning. If a student grew up on a farm and keeps records of livestock or crops, we often call it a traditional SAE. If they do anything else (research, food service, urban gardening, etc), we call it non-traditional. Yet, all are tied to agriculture—what if we focused on the current landscape of agriculture as it is, instead of anchoring to the past?
Back to that hotel meeting room, I saw the beginnings of this mindset shift come to light. As each officer shared what they already knew about SAEs, what they still wanted to know, and the direction in which they hoped this committee would go, it struck me that each one, for all their differences, was simply talking about what agriculture looks like in 2021.
Controlled environment agriculture in Ohio? Agriculture.
Ranching in Montana? Agriculture.
Food science research in a lab in Minnesota? Agriculture.
Row crop farming in Nebraska? Agriculture.
Urban farmers’ markets in New Jersey? Agriculture.
Some of these pieces of agriculture are newer, at least in their current forms. Others have been well-established for decades. Yet, even those elements we tend to think of as traditional aren’t carried out the same way they were in previous generations. Agriculture is constantly shifting along a number of spectrums; just because some aspects are farther to one end of a spectrum or another doesn’t make them more or less a part of the same industry. To call row crop farming traditional or research nontraditional gives a very low-resolution image of the real picture: we don’t grow corn the way we did 50 years ago, and using the scientific method to improve our systems has been a part of what we do for decades, whether we realize it or not.
It’s easy to get caught up in the mindset that if we recognize one piece of the industry, it takes away from the value of another. Students from farming backgrounds can feel threatened when others talk about how “agriculture is more than farming.” As someone who grew up on a farm, I can understand this. I have felt how it can come across as belittling. Yet, when we take a step back and look at the scope of agriculture, food, and natural resources, here is the fundamental truth: there are many steps in the supply chain past what happens on the land. That’s valuable. On the flip side, students who didn’t grow up on farms can sometimes feel like their SAE projects are less valid than their farming peers. Sure, there may be less of a historical timeline behind some of those elements of agriculture, but the industry is changing and our student experiences are changing with it. That, too, is valuable. At the end of the day, our current success should not depend upon how many people before us have done what we are doing; instead, it should be dependent upon our own initiative to add value to the piece of the industry we are best equipped to serve.
This is not to say that traditional and non-traditional are inaccurate terms; instead, I find them largely unhelpful. They bring to mind connotations which may not be illustrative of the whole picture, not to mention the fact they can lead to an ineffective debate of which matters more. Besides, the real tradition here is the fact that we have valued experiential learning for nearly a century, we still value it today, and, as far as I can tell, will value it for years to come. The exact nature of these experiences will shift and change to reflect the current landscape of agriculture, but the tradition of an experience where students have ownership is what truly matters. The state officers in that hotel meeting room understood this, and it’s why they are happy to take part in robust conversations surrounding experiential learning in FFA and how to improve it.
So, how about we just call it all “agriculture”? Whether we keep our SAE on our family’s cattle whose genetics can be traced back a century, a community garden service project started by our FFA chapter ten years ago, or a research project we started this school year with a grant, we are part of a valuable experience in agriculture. And that, my friends, is something to be grateful for.
One more thought: I considered calling this post “Yes, traditional. And, non-traditional.” But, when I thought about it, I realized that would be counter to my point: it’s all agriculture. What are your thoughts? Let me know in the comments.