Jim Aschwanden knows a few things about agriculture. The former Galt Joint Union High School District trustee and retired Galt High School agriculture teacher now serves as the executive director of the California FFA Foundation. He also sits on the FFA Adult Board, where he works with teachers and former student FFA leaders.
The Galt-area resident recently answered a series of questions from News-Sentinel reporter Jennifer Bonnett.
How has your past position as a high school agriculture teacher helped in your current position?
I understand how the Future Farmers of America organization plays an integral role in the total program of agricultural education. Ag education involves more than just classroom instruction — it also focuses on developing the whole student by building their interpersonal and leadership skills, as well as shaping attitudes and behaviors that lead to personal and professional success.
The FFA organization and related activities are integral to what they learn in the classroom, but programs and competitions that occur outside of the normal school day impact students in a way that is unique. The experiences that I had as an ag teacher really helped me understand how powerful the FFA organization can be in shaping the lives of young people.
Do you think there is more or less interest from ag students in the program? Why?
Over the past 30 years, enrollment in Ag Education and participation in the FFA has grown steadily — from approximately 21,000 members in the early ’80s to more than 71,000 members today. We believe this growth is a reflection of student interest in being engaged in meaningful, relevant educational experiences that they see as being valuable to their future.
So much focus in education over the past few decades has been on rote memorization and standardized testing. Ag education offers an opportunity to learn those same rigorous concepts, but to also apply those concepts in real-world situations that are far more interesting and relevant to students.
How have ag careers changed in the last 10 years?
The biggest change in ag careers has been the steady increase in the technical knowledge that is required to be successful in the workplace. There is no industry that is more on the cutting edge of technology development and application than agriculture, and today’s job candidates need to be familiar and comfortable in working with that technology.
We are seeing more demand for candidates with very specific job skills relative to that technology, with more specialization in areas like pest management, irrigation technology and power and energy systems. Many of our programs are directly linked with industry partners and community colleges to provide certificate programs that are recognized by employers.
What tips would you give to graduating seniors who want to secure a job in the field?
For students entering the job market, they need to understand that employers have some very basic expectations. Traits like punctuality, work ethic, honesty, responsibility and cooperation are very often as important as technical knowledge required for the job.
Those “soft skills” are stressed as part of ag education programs, and they cannot be overlooked when it comes to career success.
You help to oversee the state FFA recognition program. What trait do most students who receive awards possess?
I would say that the overwhelming trait that we see among our most successful students is the ability to overcome past adversity and challenges. Many of the most successful students will tell you that they learned far more by trying and failing at something than they did by their occasional successes.
Life is not always about finding the “right” answer, and those students who learn how to pick themselves up after a failure and keep moving forward despite those challenges tend to become more resourceful, innovative and resilient.
The competitive events that are offered as part of the FFA organization are often cited by students as being a powerful tool to learn about personal challenges and the value of hard work. Students who learn to accept that failure is often part of personal growth tend to eventually rise to the surface within the FFA recognition and awards program.