GRAFTON, N.D. — When Molly Zahradka started college for ag business at North Dakota State University, she realized there was something different about many of her classmates.

“My freshman year, as I started getting involved in things, I realized that a lot of the people in my classes had a leg up on me because of the information they already knew and the people they already knew,” she said. “They were coming from all over the state, and they already knew each other through FFA, and I was jealous of that — both the knowledge and the opportunities that they got that were not necessarily afforded to me as a high schooler.”

Zahradka had graduated from Grafton High School, and while she grew up in and around agriculture, Grafton then did not have an ag education program or FFA.

Early in her time at NDSU, Zahradka found herself in the office of Adam Marx, associate professor of agricultural education in teacher education at NDSU. Given that she had grown up in ag and had worked in an after-school program, Marx had an easy time selling her on switching to ag education.

Now 27, Zahradka is one of four ag teachers at the

North Valley Career and Technology Center

. The center is a unique partnering of six northeastern North Dakota school districts that work together to offer more career and technical education courses than would be possible at any of the individual schools.

A man in a purple checkered shirt and purple tie smiles at the camera.

Mike Hanson is the director of North Valley Career and Technology Center. He says the pendulum of education has swung back to providing more room for workforce development and educational choice.

Zachary Hoffner / Agweek

The point of North Valley, explains Mike Hanson, the director of the CTC, is to expand opportunities and workforce development programs to more rural students. The “pendulum swing” of the 1970s and ’80s was to push all students to go to four-year colleges, but he said that has swung back to putting more emphasis on workforce development and educational choice.

While many students still will choose to pursue a four-year degree, presenting that as the only option has meant there aren’t enough workers to hold important jobs in communities, he said. Plus, some students can find a fulfilling career without the time and expense of a four-year degree. Giving small high schools the chance to offer workforce development-type classes that they wouldn’t be able to offer on their own is the point of the CTC, Hanson said.

“That’s kind of the goal is to make sure all these rural kids have the same opportunities as a kid in Fargo or Wahpeton or any of our larger districts,” he said. “We have programs that would not be available in St. Thomas, for example, without having an area center and having all the kids build their enrollment.”

The center’s courses are in five areas, each of which has a career and technical student organization attached to it. There’s marketing education, with a connection to DECA; health science with HOSA-Future Health Professionals; business with Future Business Leaders of America; construction, drafting, welding, machine tooling and auto tech with SkillsUSA; as well as agriculture with FFA.

Hanson said 240 students attend class at North Valley, many of them coming from the adjoining Grafton High School. But other districts send their students on buses that arrive twice a day. Some students are at the center for five school periods.

“It works out well. It’s one of those things where kids invest some time to be able to come to North Valley on a bus,” he said.

The center not only offers classes to prepare students but also helps them establish relationships with employers through job shadowing and internships. Hanson said students earned $80,000 in summer internships last summer alone, and many of the students have continued part-time employment through those internships. Those relationships also may lead to some employers helping send students to college in exchange for returning and working for three years.

Brown eggs

Molly Zahradka tries to provide a broad curriculum in her ag classes to introduce students to the idea that there is more than on-the-farm production agriculture involved in the industry. Students were learning about hatching chicks when Agweek visited.

Zachary Hoffner / Agweek

The programs continue to grow in popularity. The ag program, in particular, has been so popular that the center now has placed ag teachers in some individual schools, so some students take North Valley classes right in their own buildings.

“Ag is such a broad subject that we were able to put ag teachers right in those schools and keep them occupied all day long and full of classes. So that’s a good thing. It’s kind of an introduction to everything we offer, is ag,” Hanson said.

North Valley employs four ag teachers — including Zahradka — at individual school districts and at North Valley. They plan to be able to put a fifth teacher in Cavalier at a satellite center that is in the works.

Finding ag teachers always is an issue, both for North Valley and for other school districts in the region and nation

. But Hanson said administrators have worked to recruit through NDSU’s agriculture education program. Agriculture importance to the area involved in North Valley makes it especially important to get someone in to head the classes and FFA programs.

A sign says, "On a mission to grow the tradition."

Agriculture education at North Valley Career and Technology Center has been a popular class choice, not surprisingly since it is an important agricultural region and many students come from farming backgrounds.

Zachary Hoffner / Agweek

“It’s a huge business for North Dakota and for our region, and it would be silly not to find teachers to be able to offer those classes,” Hanson said.

While the demographics are heavily rural, with many students coming from farms or ranches, Zahradka knows that not all students plan to be farmers, and she prepares curriculum accordingly.

“I strategically pick content that’s going to apply to them without having to be a farmer,” she said.

This year, she’s teaching Botany 1 and Botany 2, which also can count as science courses. Another class that has helped drive the point that not all ag jobs are farm jobs is food science.

“A lot of times they don’t think about all of the stuff before and after the production part of agriculture,” she said. “I think showing them all of the different steps and kind of exposing them to a bunch of different industries will hopefully help fill that void.”

A boy with a flannel shirt over a white hooded sweatshirt smiles.

Samuel Green is a junior at Grafton High School and the president of Grafton FFA. He intends to take over his family farm someday, and the ag program he takes through North Valley Career and Technology Center is preparing him for it.

Zachary Hoffner / Agweek

One of the students taking Botany 2 this year is Samuel Green, a junior and the Grafton FFA president.

“I live on a farm. When I take over my dad’s farm, I’ll be a sixth generation farmer,” he said. “So, farming is in my blood, basically.”

Ag has been his future pretty much as long as he can remember.

“It started when I was a little kid. I’d go with my dad in the combine during harvest, and he would let me drive up and down the field, and I guess that just sparked my interest in wanting to follow him and follow my grandparents,” Green said.

But Zahradka’s classes have exposed him and his classmates to far more about the agriculture industry than what he’s experienced on the farm. That might spark interest in careers, he said.

Green has participated in a variety of FFA career development events (or CDEs), including quiz, prepared public speaking and ag sales. His supervised agriculture experience (or SAE) is an aquaponics project with 100 bluegills. It’s a small step into livestock; he hopes to someday incorporate beef cattle into his family’s farm.

Participating in FFA also has been important to Green’s growth as a leader.

“I learned how to run a meeting, how to talk in front of others, how to just be a better leadership person,” Green said.

He encourages other students to not be afraid to join FFA. During FFA week, Feb. 18-25, the Grafton FFA has a number of events planned to promote FFA. They’ll put on a breakfast for all of the teachers to thank them for their work. They’re having a school-wide scavenger hunt, and if students find “chicks” in the school, they can bring them to the classroom to get a candy bar.

“Every day at lunch, we’re going to be doing a trivia. It’s going to be an ag fact, and if you get it, then you get a prize for that, too,” Green said.

He wants to see more people get involved in FFA so that more people consider jobs in the industry but also so that more people just have a base education in how agriculture works and its importance.

“Don’t be worried about what other people will think. Just try it,” he said.

 A lit-up egg.

Students in Molly Zahradka’s ag education class learn about chick development and hatch eggs. Zahradka is trying to provide knowledge and experiences to her students that she didn’t have in high school.

Zachary Hoffner / Agweek

Zahradka now is able to provide students in her alma mater with the agriculture education opportunities she never had. She also was on hand to launch the school’s FFA chapter in 2017. Now, the students she teaches can have that leg-up that she felt she didn’t have in college.

“What ag and FFA have to offer outside the classroom is really where I can see kids deriving most of the benefit from,” she said. “They can learn a lot at a desk, but they can learn more at National Convention and competing in CDEs and going to Little I and staying overnight — that independence and just the personal skills that they can learn far exceeds probably what they can learn in the classroom.”

Hanson has seen that firsthand in his own family. His daughter, Reagan, 2022 Region 2 Class B girls basketball senior athlete of the year, likely could have been a college athlete. But she found her true passion in animals, participating in classes related to animal health at North Valley, both through the agriculture education and health courses. Now a freshman at NDSU, she’s “found her people” and is continuing on that path she discovered through career and technical education courses at North Valley, with hopes to be a veterinarian.

“There was a whole nother piece of these kids that they can find their niche in when they go to FFA,” Hanson said.

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