School hadn’t started for the day when students began pouring into Kaylin Bade’s classroom at Washington Middle School.

The school bell wouldn’t ring for another 30 minutes, but these kids were laughing, smiling and eager to get going on the day’s topic — a review of cattle terminology and beef breeds.

They would be back the following week before school to talk about caring for cattle, and the following week they were meeting after school to discuss breed identification and making beef jerky.

In October, the group of more than two dozen students met weekly to learn about dairy cows and how cows produce milk. In November, the topic was grains: plant science, seed parts, growing and harvesting crops, turning grains into fuel.

But this isn’t an agriculture class or even a mandatory school lesson. This is WMS’s new Junior FFA Club, and it’s not just for “farm kids,” stressed Bade, adviser.

FFA, which used to stand for Future Farmers of America, no longer uses that acronym because it doesn’t encompass all that FFA has to offer, Bade explained. Today’s FFA students are future biologists, chemists, engineers and much more.

Bade herself is the perfect example. She grew up on a farm and has been active in FFA since she was a student at Union High School. For the last three years she has been president of the Missouri State FFA Alumni.

But when it came to a career, Bade chose education, language arts in particular, and she’s quick to credit her ag teachers and FFA advisers at Union with helping her discover that path.

“They really pushed me into public speaking, writing speeches, writing essays and that really just kickstarted me into this profession,” said Bade. “They saw something in me.”

Weekly Lessons, Monthly Activities

The 27 students in the Junior FFA at WMS are a mix of traditional ag kids (those who live on a farm or have a relative who owns a farm), and kids who have never had any exposure to farm life.

That means in her weekly lessons, Bade has to be sure to include the basics.

“It’s interesting for me because, especially with our first unit, some of the students knew exactly what I was talking about in terms of the difference between a cow, a bull and a steer, but some were just completely clueless,” said Bade. “So I have to make sure I hit all the basics and build up their knowledge.”

The WMS Junior FFA chapter meets weekly — in the mornings before school on the first three Wednesdays of the month for a lesson and after school on the fourth Tuesday of the month for an activity related to those lessons.

Each month has a topic, and the first lesson is always an introduction, and the second two lessons provide more detail.

Bade tries to make the activities fun. In November, they did seed dissection and ate foods made from grains; and the month before that, they held a cheese tasting and evalution.

“It was fun,” said Bade. “What was really funny is they all hated the brie . . . which I was surprised by because that’s my favorite.”

Third Year at UMS

Over at Union Middle School, this is the third year for a Junior FFA chapter, said Shyla Baxter, UMS ag instructor and Junior FFA adviser.

From the very beginning, the Junior FFA at UMS has been the school’s most popular club with around 100 students signing up the first year. Even after the numbers dropped the second year to around 50 students, the Junior FFA has remained the school’s top club, said Baxter.

Because UMS has an ag department and offers ag classes to students throughout the day, Baxter runs the chapter differently than at WMS.

The Union chapter meets only once a month for an activity, the second Tuesday, after school from 3 to around 4:30 or 5 p.m.

But just like Washington, the Union chapter includes students with a variety of exposure to farming — from the traditional ag student who is heavily involved in raising and showing animals to the novice.

“It shocks people sometimes to come down and see the variety of students that we do have,” said Baxter. “We do have a student from just about every demographic in the building.

“I have kids who this is their first encounter with animals and they didn’t know much about FFA until they joined my class,” said Baxter. “They maybe struck up a relationship with me, so they come after school for that purpose, because they enjoy the class. Or their friends are in FFA and talk about ‘we’re doing this really fun stuff, you should come.’ A lot is word of mouth.”

The activities are mostly hands-on, the students said. In October, they had a pumpkin carving contest.

This month, the students played leadership games. Working in groups, they made a race out of making human tables and untying human knots.

Student Requested

The idea to add a Junior FFA chapter at WMS came directly from the students, said Bade. At the end of last school year, two students made the suggestion as part of an end-of-the year project in their computer class. The topic was “How would you change WMS to make it better?”

Cady Koch, who was one of those seventh-graders suggesting a Junior FFA chapter and who now serves as the chapter’s president, said she had heard about Junior FFA chapters at other middle schools and felt Washington could benefit from adding one too.

“I felt like our agriculture department was lacking for the younger division, and I wanted to improve that,” said Koch, Villa Ridge.

Koch is one of the chapter’s traditional ag kids. She has grown up on a farm and shown steer since she was 8.

The chapter’s secretary Claire Glastetter is more in between. Her grandfather owns a farm, and she helps him check his crops, and she helps at her friend’s family farm caring for the goats and chickens.

She joined the Junior FFA because she liked the stories her mom shared from when she was young doing things on the family farm.

Koch said she doesn’t mind that the chapter is a mix of both kinds of students. In fact, she kind of likes it.

“The more people who are educated about farming, the better,” Koch remarked.

At Union, Emily Smallwood, admits she joined the Junior FFA for social reasons as much as what she could learn.

“I like afterschool activities like this, but also my stepdad enjoys gardening, and I would like to learn how to do that too,” said Smallwood.

Her friend Daisy Seago, who also joined because of friends, said she always wanted to live on a farm and likes the lessons she gets about animals and farm life from the Junior FFA.

Teaches Leadership

One of the purposes of the Junior FFA is to develop leadership skills, said Baxter.

“In traditional high school ag classes, FFA is intracurricular,” she said. “We have a three-circle model with FFA as the club piece, the classroom instruction piece, and then we have the supervised agricultural experience piece, which is something you do outside of school that ties in with things you’ve learned in the classroom.

“The FFA side of it, the goal of it is to develop leaders and give kids plenty of opportunities to develop leadership skills, public speaking skills, marketable job skills, really . . . so it’s really getting kids ready for careers.”

At the middle school level, Junior FFA chapters offer students a chance to get their feet wet, so to speak. It is kind of their first opportunity to lead.

“With my eighth-graders, I have a steering committee,” said Baxter. “They plan all the activities they do. They decide what we’re going to do in the coming months; they decide everything about the activities, and I’m just here to guide them along.

“It’s cool to watch them be so excited and make decisions,” she remarked.