Pilot Program Prepares FFA Students

Seed Company and High School FFA Programs Team Up to Teach Agribusiness Careers

FFA students from York, Nebraska, chat with Mycogen commercial agronomist Craig Solomon, far left, and seed sales representative Matt Porter, second from left, in a kitchen they constructed over the summer. It's become a useful tool for the FFA program, as well as a popular hangout for the students. Students pictured are, from left, Chase Cotton, Max Kohmetscher, Cooper Koch, Carlos Munoz and Bryce Danielson. (Photo by Dave Vrbas)

YORK, Neb. (DTN) -- A pilot program between a handful of high school FFA programs and a major seed company is attempting to sow the seeds for future careers in agribusiness.

The new agronomy curriculum program, officially implemented at York High School in York, Nebraska in November, has proven very successful, with students teaming up with a sales representative and agronomist from Mycogen Seeds to learn the entire sales process for dealing corn seed.

Starting with prospecting for leads and working through the challenging aspects of setting appointments, identifying needs, overcoming objections, and eventually closing the sale, FFA students got an inside track on several careers in agriculture.

Cal Williams, who has served as FFA adviser at York High School for the past 21 years, said their partnership program with seed hybridizer Mycogen has been nothing short of phenomenal. He explained that Mycogen approached the school with a curriculum-based program for their students shortly after the beginning of the school year. After he and co-adviser Jason Hirschfeld reviewed the materials and lesson plans, they decided the benefits of the experience for their students made the decision an easy one to make.

Mycogen implemented the program at six public high schools nationwide this school year, including York and Aurora in Nebraska.

"This is hands-on experience in agribusiness they're receiving," Williams said. "Not only are they learning the sales process, but they're learning agronomy, and more about the planting, growing, and harvesting of the seed. But more importantly, they're learning to provide service after the sale."

Matt Porter of Grand Island, Nebraska, was the Mycogen territory manager who invested countless hours of his time to get the program off and running in York. A veteran seed sales representative with eight years of experience, he sought to keep things uncomplicated for the students. They were able to sell one dryland and one irrigated land seed option to their prospects, chosen by the experts at Mycogen as ideal for the central Nebraska climate.

Porter explained that he met with the high school's FFA officers and sponsors in October, presented the curriculum, then had an informational meeting for the remaining FFA students. He was enthusiastic to help implement the program because of his own involvement in his high school alma mater's FFA program while growing up in Nelson, a small town in south-central Nebraska.

"I always say it was my grandpa, dad, and FFA that got me where I am today," Porter said. A major proponent of FFA, Porter is proud of Mycogen's long-standing partnership with FFA, and was thrilled to work with local students to teach them more about careers in agriculture.

Porter believes that the best thing FFA has done over the years has been to evolve and begin to shift the central focus to leadership and vocational skills. Taking that approach, he explained, is all-encompassing, bringing in students who are not necessarily interested in an agricultural career down the road.

"Whether or not the kids want to work in ag, FFA teaches great skills," Porter added. "Which is a big part of why we made this about more than just the sale. This program also teaches the service behind the sale and teaches great lessons in that approach."

York's FFA program, boasting upwards of 250 students in both middle and high school, has many non-traditional agricultural students, according to Hirschfeld, who has been the York FFA co-adviser for seven years. "A lot of our students live in the city limits, so they're getting exposure through FFA and this program to many different job opportunities associated with agronomy."

Hirschfeld said the partnership between Mycogen and his students, as well as local company Central Valley Ag (CVA), has really helped students open their eyes to all the opportunities available in agribusiness. "The students have been able to interact with so many professionals within CVA and Mycogen and see what their roles are within the ag community."

Porter said an initial meeting to gauge interest among the FFA students was well-attended.

Some students decided the program wasn't the right fit for them, so subsequently opted out.

"We gave them the opportunity to decide whether it was right for them or if it was something they didn't want to pursue," he said, explaining that the ruling out of certain careers is equally important.

Twenty students ended up taking part in the program, with students, sponsors, and mentors all calling it wildly successful.

Mark Peters is the regional agronomy sales manager with CVA in York who worked in tandem with Porter on the implementation of the program. He said the success of the program is especially interesting because of the emotional decision the purchase of seed can be for many growers. "Seed is a very emotional purchase for most farmers. It's a very close-to-the-heart decision," he said, noting that most growers purchase from a trusted adviser.

"It was great to see the students and farmers meet up after matching their busy schedules during harvest. It's invaluable for these kids to make these connections and for us to open doors to hopefully keep this talent in our community," he added.

No one could be more excited about the program than York High's FFA president, Bryce Danielson, a senior who's been a six-year FFA participant and just took the reins as chapter president this school year. He said he will likely pursue a career in agricultural engineering when he attends the University of Nebraska in the fall.

He enjoyed the sales process, as nerve-wracking as it was.

"The whole program worked really well. This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us," Danielson explained. "Even if we aren't pursuing a future career in ag, this gave us an idea of job opportunities a lot of us weren't even aware of."

Danielson said his first sales presentations were during role-playing practice at school, then an actual sales presentation to family, and finally a sales presentation to a producer just down the road in Aurora. Danielson prospected the customer, set the appointment, and they met up in Pizza Hut for his presentation. During that first presentation, he had his mentor, Porter, there to fill in any gaps for him and to provide moral support. On his second presentation, he flew solo.

"I was kinda nervous," he recalled, adding that both farmers made purchases during his presentations. Danielson said he's proudest of the effort of his fellow FFA students, and he's excited that the local chapter will receive a portion of the proceeds of the sales they made.

Hirschfeld explained that the decision was made to use part of those funds as scholarships for the students who did the sales presentations.

In addition to teaching the sales process to the students, Mycogen recently brought in Craig Solomon, their commercial agronomist from Lincoln, who gave a presentation to the students about the planting, growth, and harvesting of corn. His presentation covered all aspects of what farmers encounter during the growing season; from insects and grubs, to improper planting and other pitfalls.

Since the students will be following up with their new customers throughout the stages of the growing season, from spring planting through to harvest season in the fall, they have a vested interest in seeing their product succeed. Solomon and Porter look forward to also being there for the students as they routinely check back with farmers in the field to see how their seeds perform.

The students all plan to be present when farmers dump the seed in their planters and forge out into the fields to plant the seeds sold by their local FFA chapter.

Danielson said he plans to drive out to his hometown from UNL to check on his customers in the fall and looks forward to seeing how their yields end up during the harvest. "I can't wait to see how it goes," he said, adding, "I hope it goes well."

(ES/SK)

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