BOISE — Many of Idaho’s largest ag-related businesses are lining up in support of a proposal to secure an additional $2.24 million annually in state money to shore up and expand the state’s FFA and ag education programs.
Representatives of several of Idaho’s biggest agribusinesses met in Boise Dec. 19 to learn more about the proposal, which will be pitched to Idaho lawmakers next month.
Most expressed support for the proposal because they said their companies depend on qualified workers who have the farming and technical experience that secondary ag education provides.
Jan W. de Weerd, vice president of global ag services and strategy for ConAgra Foods Lamb Weston, said his company relies on skilled employees with farming knowledge but they are becoming harder to find.
“Ag education is very near and dear to our heart,” he said. “We are finding it more and more difficult to find skilled laborers. We want to be part of the solution.”
The agricultural education improvement initiative was created by the various Idaho FFA groups.
Steve Wilder, an ag education instructor at Meridian High School, said 46 of the state’s 126 ag education teachers have left over the past two years, a 36 percent turnover rate.
He also said state funding for ag education has not increased since 1998 but enrollment has increased 20 percent in just the last five years.
The $2.24 million is critical to ensuring the continued viability of the state’s FFA and ag education programs, he said.
“There are some really harsh realities,” he said. “If we don’t say something, who will?”
The initiative would include common Idaho quality standards for all ag education programs, $10,000 incentive grants based on those standards, professional development programs, $25,000 start-up grants for ag education programs and a full-time Idaho FFA Association executive director position.
Lamb Weston has had to leave certain positions open for more than a year because it can’t find qualified applicants, de Weerd said.
If the number of people with both farming and professional technical skills continues to decline, it could undermine Idaho’s strong farming community, he said.
“We need to grab those kids early to show them that farming today is not just walking around with a bib overall on,” he said. “It’s a true technology business and it’s a very challenging and rewarding opportunity.”
Cally Grindstaff, vice president of corporate relations for Clear Springs Foods, said her company is expanding and needs good workers and knows it can find them in students who have attended ag education programs.
“We think it could benefit our company so we’d like to help if we can,” she said about the initiative.
Major Idaho ag companies such as Lamb Weston, J.R. Simplot Co. and Amalgamated Sugar Co. have now joined many of the state’s top farm groups, including Idaho Farm Bureau Federation, Idaho Grain Producers Association, Idaho Wool Growers Association and Idaho Sugarbeet Growers Association, in support of the proposal.