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Community Feature Innovative Ag Ed Program to House Students From Across Kansas

Interview with Longton, Kan., Agriculture Education Instructor Chris Johnston

There’s something exciting growing, literally, grass-roots-up in Longton, Kan., and it’s called The Agricultural Experience or The Ag Experience for short. Developed at Elk Valley schools, this unique and innovative program is focused on creating an immersive learning experience in production agriculture where kids gain the knowledge and skills to find success in post-secondary education or to go straight into the workforce. Even if they don’t plan to enter the industry, it brings kids closer to their food sources and helps students thrive by creating a more hands-on learning experience, which can be a lifeline for those who are bored or struggling in a traditional classroom setting. Developing more young people skilled in agriculture may also have a secondary benefit – to reduce the loss of young people to the urban areas perceived to have more opportunities.

Designed for ninth through 12th graders, the program is in its first year with big plans for its second. The Ag Experience is the brainchild of Elk Valley’s award-winning Agriculture Education Instructor and FFA Advisor, Chris Johnston – with rock-solid backing from the Elk Valley School Board, Superintendent, and expertise from this area’s farmers and ranchers. While the participants will graduate from Elk Valley High School, the program is open to students across the state.

Chris Johnston has been preparing for this calling all his life. He grew up on a ranch in the Oklahoma panhandle where it was “flat, desolate, and dry – with short grass and vicious weather.” He went to college where he discovered his passion for teaching all things agriculture, got married, started a family, and was encouraged by his student-teaching mentor to interview for the agri-science teaching position in Longton.

“It just felt right … talking to the school board and the administration here … I’ve never, ever been one to step down from a challenge – and there was a heck of a challenge given me that day! I knew it was going to work and be a good fit,” Chris said.

He was ready for a change of pace and a change of scenery and accepted the challenge. Chris laughs, “It was the first job I didn’t have to catch a horse at 4 o’clock in the morning to get ready for the day.”

Now four years into it, Johnston has grown as an educator, immersed himself in the community, and readily admits it’s been an adventure. He’s getting ready to graduate his first high school class – his “guinea pigs” – and it’s hard for him to even put into words how much he’s seen this group of kids grow. He has strict rules, high expectations, and seeks to inspire a good work ethic. “Good, bad, or indifferent, somebody is watching you – in the ag industry or in life in general – and I want these kids to understand that the way they handle and carry themselves is going to follow them the rest of their lives. If I can instill in these kids to be decent human beings and have some skills to go out – whatever career path they choose, then I did my job,” Johnston says.

It had a humble start. The Ag Experience began with students raising bottle goats. Then, using his own money, Johnston bought some little feeder pigs. Kids were exposed to livestock and they loved it! On the school farm, they now have five head of sows, four does and their kids – including a rare set of quadruplets, and a herd of show heifers. For those of you not up on the ag lingo, sows are female pigs, does are female goats and kids are their babies, and heifers are female cows that have not borne a calf. Currently rebuilding a pen on campus, Johnston and his students have constructed many of their facilities, including two barns.

Students can choose to raise an animal, show it, sell it, and keep the profits. Their only cost is the feed bill. “Every one of the kids has a unique Supervised Agricultural Experience project.” Johnston explains, “Most of the kids have livestock projects because our interest as a whole is in livestock, but we have other projects as well. It’s not uncommon for my students to beat me up here to feed in the morning. That’s amazing – to get high school-aged kids out of bed at 6 a.m. to do their chores. It’s totally their responsibility, but I am here to help every step of the way.”

Leadership and mentoring are cultivated in The Ag Experience. Along with the classroom laboratory and supervised agricultural experiences, students can attend and participate in the Kansas State Fair, shows, jackpots, and other competitions – even in other states. “Competition pushes the kids to their limit and they are capable of doing great things,” Chris adds. Opportunities to intern with area producers and local activities like hunting and fishing are also options for Ag Experience students.

The FFA (Future Farmers of America) piece of this program is where students showcase their skills. Besides offering career-development activities, fellowship, and networking opportunities, it gives them a sense of belonging. “Being at a national FFA convention in a sea of blue corduroy jackets is extremely rewarding. The kids know that they are part of something that’s bigger than themselves. Conversely, when kids from totally different backgrounds step into my classroom and they put that FFA jacket on – you know – they’re all the same.”

Elk Valley has five Ag Experience students participating this year. All but one lives out of the district. Currently, these students drive to school and have schedules that have been tailored to meet their individual needs. That’s the beauty of this program. There’s really nothing else like it in the U.S., although similar models have been successfully implemented in Germany. Johnston exclaims, “There’s no book, no guides, no rubrics – just me, the school board, and superintendent working to reach the end goal of offering real-world, hands-on opportunities. It’s no secret – what we’re doing is not a secret. Every ag teacher will tell you the same thing, whether they’re from Oklahoma, Kansas, Texas – wherever. They see kids who are bored in general education classes and they come down to the ag classes and they just thrive and flourish! We’re taking advantage of that – and giving the students more ownership in their education.”

They’ll take as many as they can get, but Elk Valley’s goal is to double their Ag Experience student enrollment for next year. The program goes from school year to school year and students from across the state are invited to experience rural living and an in-depth, outside-the-classroom agricultural course schedule. If there are several students from a certain urban area – say Wichita or Kansas City – an SUV or bus may be dispatched to transport them back and forth, with students staying Tuesday through Friday at school and the weekend at home with their families.

The district has purchased, and is in the process of renovating, the iconic Silver Bell Motel in Longton, which will provide dormitory-style housing under the supervision of a school official/dorm parent who will stay there. SKT will be installing the Wi-Fi access for the facility. It has nine rooms, with the vision of two boys or two girls rooming together, of course keeping them separate. Johnston laughs, “If we have one girl and 10 boys, we’ll work through it and cross that bridge when we get there.” He adds, “We just want kids who are 1) interested, and 2) have a passion for the ag industry or just want to further themselves – either going straight into the workforce or preparing for their post-secondary studies. This first wave of kids will receive a full-ride scholarship to come in!”

For those looking for a destination public school option, this onsite ag program just might be the ticket – especially for kids who desire to interact with agriculture but don’t have the outlet to do so. To schedule a visit, call 620.642.2215, and go to The Ag Experience website for more information and to apply online. You can also follow The Ag Experience on Facebook.