QUINCY, Wash. — Agriculture education and FFA are more important than ever, and Rod Cool ought to know. He has taught high school agriculture for more than
three decades in Washington state.
It’s a matter of feeding the nation and the world, he said.
“Our farm population cannot sustain itself,” said Cool, 58, who teaches agriculture and advises the FFA chapter at the Quincy, Wash., high school. “It’s statistically impossible for that few people to keep producing enough people to do all the jobs and keep producing food.”
With a rapidly increasing global population — nearly 8 billion and counting — and the hungry mouths that come with it, agriculture teachers like Cool and his colleagues are vital.
“For every 100 graduates that we turn out of any high school, we better make two farmers or we’re all going to starve to death,” Cool said from behind his trademark mustache. “We have to not only attract kids to the industry, we need to find the best and brightest kids and get them there. Truly, we are the last line of defense between us and starvation.”
His spot in life
This is Cool’s 36th year in a Washington classroom. He taught 3 years at Selkirk High School in Metaline Falls, 3 years at Zillah High School, 9 years in Wenatchee, 15 years in Chelan, and he’s been at Quincy High School for 6 years.
The man known as Mr. Cool to his students grew up on a cattle ranch in Chelan.
“Which was a little different — all my friends, their dads and moms, had orchards and we had cows,” he said.
Both sides of his family were farmers and ranchers, raising sheep, cows, orchards and hay. Cool’s father’s “whole bunch of little side hustles” included shoeing horses, outfitting hunts and meat cutting.
“My first job was when I was 2 years old. We had 70 fat rabbit does,” Cool said. “My job was to feed and water rabbits when I first started, then I graduated to chickens, and then to the horses and cows.”
They raised cows until he was in high school. They lost half their herd in wildfires in 1970 and 1972, and ultimately sold the rest because of the high cost of replacing the lost cattle.
Cool joined FFA in the second semester of his freshman year. It was a natural fit.
“I guess the rest is history — I’ve been involved in it ever since,” he said. “Kind of where I found my spot in life was in FFA.”
Cool considers himself “kind of a dinosaur” as an agriculture teacher with a strong farming background. Few teachers entering the profession today grew up on a farm, he said.
“I can go out and help a kid fit a lamb, help them do a flower arrangement or help them weld something together, because that’s what I had to do when I first started teaching — you had to do everything,” he said. “Your background growing up on a farm lent you to being able to do all of those things from the get-go.”
The same goes for his students. In Quincy, all their families are involved in ag, but few live on a production farm.
Skills for life
Cool currently teaches three floriculture classes, food science, horticulture and agricultural physics.
At various times during his career, he’s also taught ag mechanics, ag fabrication, forestry, natural resource sciences, equine biology, meat biology, animal science, physics and chemistry.
The floriculture class is a good example of the level of experience Cool provides his students. They sell floral arrangements so all 90 students can take the class without having to pay a laboratory fee.
Students budget for and design arrangements each month, ordering flowers and handling marketing.
“It’s good training, it’s hands-on and it’s real,” Cool said. “It’s real-life problem-solving, the kind of thing you want kids to be able to do when they get out of school — be able to think on their feet and make those split-second, good judgment decisions.”
Cool credits his Chelan High School agriculture teacher, Walt Pierson, with inspiring his career path.
“He was one of those guys who literally gave his life away for kids,” Cool said.
Cool wanted to provide the same experience to his students.
He’s found that people become ag teachers either because they had a really good teacher, or the experience wasn’t quite what they wanted and they hope to give other kids the opportunity they had sought.
“I was fortunate enough to have a really good ag teacher,” he said.
Cool is proud that many of his students have gone on to work in agriculture, from farming to food science to forestry and support agribusinesses.
Agriculture needs people, he said.
“Farm labor is a crisis right now,” Cool said. “Everybody is fighting to find labor, and skilled labor, especially.”
Higher taxes and costs and more regulations put pressure on farmers, ranchers and agricultural companies large and small, he said.
“The innovation and technology, all that stuff’s taking care of itself,” he said. “But labor is something we can never get away from in agriculture, especially perishable crops.”
Cool tells his students they’re the smartest kids in the building for taking agricultural classes. He points to data indicating that enough students graduate to fill only 38% of available agricultural jobs.
The students that go into community college, trade school or four-year universities will have a job when they get out, he said.
“If you’re anywhere in that food pipeline, from farm to fork, you’re going to be in high demand,” he said. “And when you’re in a high-demand job, usually higher wages come with it.”
Teaching in Quincy
Cool is one of three ag teachers at Quincy High School.
The ag program includes a livestock facility for pigs and sheep, paid for by the Quincy community through a school bond; a greenhouse; a food science kitchen; and a 12-acre alfalfa field used as a teaching lab. The school will add a cattle barn next summer.
“That’s a very unique opportunity for a high school,” Cool said. “There aren’t a whole lot of facilities that have a land lab, a livestock lab and a plant lab all at the same time.”
Sometimes adversity creates opportunity.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, his horticulture students weren’t able to have their annual plant sale in person. Cool helped them pivot to online sales.
“We sold every plant in two days, and it was the biggest plant sale we’ve ever had,” he said. “You’re going to find that in almost every small town. If they have a quality FFA program and agriculture program, that’s why it’s that way, because of the support that comes from the community.”
Cool lives with Sherrie, his wife of 36 years, in Chelan, nearly 70 miles away. During the week, he stays in a small apartment in Quincy.
“I still like coming to work every day. I get up every morning and am excited to go to work,” he said. “It’s never really been a job, it’s been what I do, it’s my identity. It’s really important to me that the tradition continues. As long as I’m able to do it and be effective doing it, I’m going to.”
Jorge Villasenor, now strategic account manager for Corteva Agriscience, was one of Cool’s students at Chelan High School from 2007 to 2011.
“The best thing about Mr. Cool is how much he cares about the kids,” Villasenor said. “He cares about their success, not only in the classroom and in FFA, but cares about them outside of school. He wants them to succeed in life.”
Cool is a big proponent of hands-on learning, Villasenor said.
“The best example of that was getting to break in horses and butcher livestock during our biology classes — definitely a unique approach that I enjoyed,” he said.
Villasenor doubts he would have tried public speaking without Cool’s encouragement. The skills he acquired under Cool’s tutelage were “incredibly useful” after college, and in his current job, where he often speaks to large groups, he said.
“I feel like FFA was a tool that he used to develop myself and many others into better equipped adults,” Villasenor said. “It’s hard to explain, but he had a way of trusting in us with big responsibilities. This made me feel important and like the work I was doing mattered.”
Cool estimates he’s taught 3,200 to 3,500 students during his time in the classroom.
Six were elected state FFA officers, including three who were state presidents.
One state president was Apolinar Blanco, who was Cool’s student from 2010 to 2014. Blanco was state president in 2014-2015 and is now a senior account specialist for Chelan Fresh.
“Mr. Cool made a huge impact on my life. He is the reason why I am in the ag field today,” Blanco said. “He is the reason why I can give a speech in front of people without shutting down. He has impacted my life in more ways than one and I will forever be grateful for all of his help and for passing his knowledge on to me.”
Cool went out of his way to show students that they have a place in the world, regardless of the career path they choose, Blanco said.
“Mr. Cool is a great human being, and when kids take his classes we can all be assured that he will treat them like his own and give them the tools they need to succeed in whatever they want to do,” he said.
Value of hard work
The other two FFA members who became state presidents were Cool’s own children: Son Tucker in 2009-2010 and daughter Sammi Jo in 2011-2012.
“My dad has devoted his entire life to FFA, his students and agriculture education,” said Tucker Cool, now a rancher and auctioneer with his family outside Davenport, Wash. “(FFA) fostered a lot of connections that I still have today.”
Now married and a mom, Sammi Jo (Cool) Sims is following in her father’s footsteps as an FFA adviser. She is in her sixth year at Ellensburg High School.
She said her father embodies the importance of hard work. He’s also empowered her “to thrive in chaos,” which she says comes with the job.
“He just has the biggest heart,” she said. “He has always, always, always 110% been about the kids, and that’s why he has changed so many lives and impacted so many students.”
Sims was inspired by the way her father’s former students would approach him and share how his teaching impacted their lives.
“Now that I’m an ag teacher, I can only hope that my students come back and tell me those same things,” she said.
Cool never pushed his children to join FFA. It had to be their decision, he said.
“To have them do so well in something I’m so passionate about is pretty special,” Cool said. “The fact they both got elected state president is just gravy.”
Tucker and Sammi Jo exceeded their father’s expectations by the time they finished high school, he said, and have gone on to be “very successful adults.”
He attributes that to their experiences in FFA competitions and leadership development events.
If students take FFA seriously, Cool said, they will hone their skills and become even more employable.
“I hear that from my kids when they go to job fairs, that because of what they did in FFA, they can talk to anybody,” Cool said.