South Dakota agricultural education and FFA history: Female enrollment in ag ed and FFA

Clark W. Hanson
Professor Emeritus, Agricultural Education, SDSU

How did agriculture education, now 100 years strong, come to be?

The Hatch Act of 1887 was passed by Congress with the expressed purpose of conducting scientific studies, establish experiment stations in each state, and “disseminate practical agricultural information.” Alfred C. True was appointed to lead the work of the experiment stations and communication between the states. True took the challenge to heart, distributing information which was believed to “mean school reform in rural areas — including the establishment of agricultural education” at the high school level.

In 1901, Dick Crosby, named as special assistant to True, proceeded to work “for more relevant education from progressives” and “agricultural education” in the public schools started to become reality. Over the years, various models were developed for location of such programs, curriculum to be offered and availability to boys and girls.

“The efforts of the Office of Experiment Stations started to bear fruit between 1906 and 1917,” according to Gary Moore, a retired teacher educator from North Carolina State University said Aug. 20, 2019. “Agricultural education programs were being established in Georgia, Virginia, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Arkansas, Nebraska, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Idaho, Kansas, Montana, North and South Dakota, Washington and in other states.”

In the spring 1916, the U.S. Department of Education, Bureau of Education, reported on the degree to which the schools were teaching agriculture in high schools. Over 2,000 public high schools reported classes in agriculture, with 1,521 teaching agriculture as an informational topic and 566 schools declared as teaching vocational agriculture. Enrollment reported was 24,743 boys and 16,312 girls. A conflicting report states even greater female enrollment.

Cayce Scarborough, a professor emeritus at North Carolina State University, wrote in 1987 that he was 6 years old when the Smith-Hughes Act was passed in 1917 and the required electives in small rural schools became vocational agriculture for boys and home economics for girls, and “That was that!”

How is it that females were not officially allowed to enroll in high school agricultural education classes until the early 1970s? Author Hanson taught in Canby, Minn., where a number of vocational/business classes were offered: four years of vocational agriculture, three areas of industrial arts (drafting, woodworking, metals), home economics including a school cafe, and bookkeeping. Hanson does not recall any interest from females wanting to enroll in high school vocational agriculture and industrial arts classes. The federal law, known as Title 9, was passed while he was in graduate school at Iowa State. The times were changing.

A few years after securing employment as a teacher educator in agriculture, Hanson was visiting with a young female student, Eleanor (Sween) Iverson, an English major from Volga, S.D., who requested the opportunity to change majors and start preparing to be a high school agriculture teacher. Hilda Gadda allowed her to sign up for ag ed at SDSU as the first female in agriculture education teacher education, but had to check with the dean first. Iverson became South Dakota’s first female agriculture education instructor, teaching in 1976-77 in Woonsocket a year, then Huron two years with in a two-teacher program. Iverson shares, “Timing is everything. There was an ag teacher shortage at the time, and I’m sure I only got hired because I had a degree and many were doing alternative certification.” Despite being the first female ag teacher, she remembers everyone being very warm and welcoming. Even though many asked, “Why would you want to teach ag?” no one ever asked “What are you doing here?”

Another South Dakota pioneer female ag teacher was Kristine Ranger, originally from northeast Michigan. She taught in Sisseton in 1980-84. She remembers losing a lot of senior boys as classes started, because they didn’t think she knew what she was doing. However, following that, she quickly shared that she focused on recruiting eighth graders and doubled the size of her freshman class the second year, showing she did know what she was doing. She felt readily accepted by other ag teachers, but more challenged in Sisseton, with the biggest acceptance issue being with jealous mothers of students, because as she did student SAE visits, and met with the students and dads, as they knew agriculture.

Ranger taught multi district students from several area schools, teaching shop, welding, wood working, small engines, animal science, etc. With no core curriculum, and one computer that no one really knew how to operate, she relied on an Ag Advisory Committee and local alumni that she formed to help set curriculum. She fondly remembers dairy foods judging — then making lasagna afterward with the cheese, working with a kid to castrate pigs, and teaching about bovine semen with a local advisory committee member watching class and being embarrassed. The FFA chapter did a lot of community projects, including painting the school stadium stands. Despite the challenges, Ranger says, “The good times definitely outweighed the bad. I enjoyed it, but it was very intense and looking back, I burned out by doing so much.”

Only teaching ag four years, Ranger made a lasting impact on agriculture education in South Dakota, helping organize the South Dakota State FFA Alumni.

Barb Berndt taught ag in the 1980s and 1990s with the Northwest Area Multidistrict. This ag program was unique in that it was set up in a mobile trailer and moved between eight different schools, for one semester each — covering the communities of Faith, Bison, Harding County, Dupree, Timber Lake and Isabel.

Even though there were only a handful of female agriculture education teachers in the state when they started, a few of the pioneer female teachers are still making an impact by teaching ag today.

Lori Tonak started the agriculture education program/FFA chapter in Artesian, S.D., in fall 1982. In 1985, she also taught two ag classes a day in Woonsocket and five classes a day in Artesian and was the adviser for the Artesian FFA and the Woonsocket FFA chapters. Reflecting back, Tonak shared, “As a female instructor, I was treated like any other young instructor, male or female, by fellow teachers. The challenges I faced were more from young men who didn’t believe a woman could weld and work on motors. After the first few days of the curriculum, the challenges went away as students realized I didn’t just talk, but could actually do. I had great mentors in Leonard DeBoer, Richard Lubinus and Bobby Muller. They were always at the end of the phone line when I had a question and I was always thankful Artesian was in their FFA district. After taking a 12-year hiatus to work in the agriculture industry, it amazed me when I came back to ag education and realized how many female instructors there were. At my first National FFA Convention as an adviser in 1983, I saw about 20 female instructors, and when I went to the National FFA Convention in 1999 after returning to teaching, I was shocked to see almost half the instructors were women.” Tonak now teaches adult farm management through Mitchell Technical Institute.

Julie (Leier) Mueller started about the same time. She taught ag in Bowdle in 1983-84, Highmore in 1984-89, Wall in 1989-91 and, since 2015, she teaches agriscience in Garretson. She recounts, “Kris Ranger, Barb Berndt, and Lori Tonak were all out in the field when I started. Being 5’ 1 1/2” and female in a predominantly male field of teaching had its challenges. I found both adults and students didn’t take me very seriously at first. I spent one year in Bowdle and then made the move to Highmore when they contacted me to interview there. Highmore was a good fit, and I taught five years there. The community service projects the FFA completed helped me gain ground. I applied for and received a number of grants and was the first ag teacher there to bring in a wire feed welder. With class time and numerous after-school hours, some of the members and I built two sets of portable bleachers used at ball games and rodeos. As one of the few female teachers in the state, I found myself riding a state bus to the National Convention every year. I always wanted to be a West River resident, so when Wall opened up, I applied and taught two years there before getting married and moving back to the east side of the state. I knew my strengths and weaknesses and knew to use my advisory board.” Mueller reflects, “I enjoy what I call ‘the sisterhood.’ I was a bit overwhelmed at ag conferences back in the early days, even though Dave Sivertsen, Richard Lubinus and Roger Wehde were great mentors to me.”

Eide shares, “After meeting Miss Leier, adviser to a neighboring chapter, as a high school freshman, I never again questioned if a female could be a good ag teacher or FFA adviser. As an agriculture education major myself in the early 90s — Leier, Berndt and Tonak, along with Sheree Christensen, were role models, sharing their passion for agriculture with their students and peers.”

The times continue to change. Today, over half of the South Dakota agriculture education teachers are female. Did these women choose to set themselves apart as pioneers and role models? Or simply choose to follow their hearts and do what they loved? They are examples for everyone to follow. They helped build leadership, grow agriculture education, and strengthen South Dakota agriculture into what it is today. Females make up 43% of the 2019-20 South Dakota FFA memberships.

Editor's note: To commemorate the passage of the Smith Hughes Act of 1917, Clark W. Hanson has written a historical summary of events that occurred in the South Dakota Agricultural Education program. Over a two-year time frame a series of articles will share how the South Dakota program originated and developed the past 100 years.

Guest authors for this article are Gerri Ann Eide, director, and Gretchen Sharp, assistant director, South Dakota FFA Foundation.