A bill that would remove barriers for students seeking to join FFA chapters and might reduce burnout among Oregon high school agricultural science teachers may be gaining momentum in the state Legislature.

The legislation, House Bill 2444, has passed out of the House Education Committee and is now in the Joint Student Success Committee.

Imbler High School’s agricultural sciences teacher and FFA chapter adviser, J.D. Cant, believes the bill, which would cost the state $1.2 million in the 2019-21 biennium, has a realistic chance of passing as long as its supporters keep it on the radar of legislators.

“We do not want it to be forgotten,” Cant said.

The IHS teacher explained that his biggest fear is that HB 2444 will languish in the Joint Student Success Committee and not be voted on before the current legislative session ends. That is why Cant is helping lead a statewide effort to keep legislators aware of the bill.

“We want to have a consistent drumbeat,” Cant said.

FFA students from throughout the state are speaking to the Joint Ways and Means Committee at every opportunity about HB 2444. The committee is the Legislature’s appropriations committee, which determines state budget policy.

FFA students Chloe Birkmaier and Kylie Barry, both seniors, addressed the committee on Friday during a hearing at Blue Mountain Community College in Pendleton.

Birkmaier and Barry both spoke about how they have benefited from FFA, a national organization formerly known as Future Farmers of America.

“It has truly transformed me as a person,” Birkmaier said.

The IHS senior told the Ways and Means Committee that when she joined FFA she was just someone who wanted to fit in, but because it pushed her out of her comfort zone her confidence has grown, she has become more adept at problem solving and is now a candidate for a position on FFA’s state officer team.

“This is just my story, but every member of FFA has a story of their own. That is why I ask for your support,” she said.

Barry told the committee how proud she is to be part of FFA and the sense of empowerment and excitement she feels as a member of the organization.

Audrey Cant, a first-grade teacher at Imbler Elementary School and the wife of J.D. Cant, also addressed the Joint Ways and Means Committee. An FFA state officer while a high school student, she told the committee that every leadership skill she learned while in FFA she today applies daily as an educator.

Cant spoke emotionally about how excited she is that one of her children will soon be an FFA chapter member.

“I ask for your support, not just for my children but for children across the state so that they will also have a chance to benefit and to grow,” she said.

A portion of the $1.2 million HB 2444 would provide FFA would be used to help youth whose families cannot afford the membership fee. This would make it possible for many more students to join FFA. All students in FFA must be enrolled in agriculture science classes at their high school. J.D. Cant said that about 6,000 students in Oregon are enrolled in agriculture classes but are not in FFA.

Funding from HB 2444 would also be used to hire an adviser who would work with the 120 FFA officers at the chapter and state levels. Cant said a state adviser is needed because of the discrepancy in experience among the FFA chapters in Oregon — this means that not all FFA officers are receiving the same level of guidance.

Having a state adviser for officers would also take some of the workload off agriculture teaches, almost all of whom also serve as FFA chapter advisers, reducing the likelihood of burnout. Cant said that the percentage of agriculture science teachers who leave their profession within five years of entering it is higher than for most other teachers.

He attributes this to a number of factors including the fact that many agricultural science teachers work almost year round because of their involvement in FFA activities. Statistics from a National Agricultural Education Supply and Demand report on the Teach Ag website, www.naae.org/teachag, indicate that in 2017 there were 40 full-time openings for agriculture science teachers in public school districts in the region composed of Oregon, Alaska, California, Nevada, Idaho, Montana, Hawaii and Utah.

HB 2444 would help address the burnout issue not only by providing a state adviser but also by establishing a grant program to help pay agricultural science teachers working with FFA chapters at fairs and livestock shows.

State Rep. Greg Barreto (R-Cove), one of HB 2444’s chief sponsors, said the money the bill would provide teachers is a critical element.

“With the investment they make in students, with all of the extracurricular activities and travel in the summer, they need to be compensated,” Barreto said. The state representative has long been impressed with FFA.

“What FFA does is nothing short of impressive,” he said, adding that the leadership skills students in FFA develop “are second to none.”

The FFA once received a significant amount of funding from the state. This funding began disappearing due to budget cuts about 20 years ago. The last year schools received FFA funding from the state was 2011.

Today, Cant hopes the state’s former ties to the organization will be rekindled.

“We want the state to reconnect with us,” he said.

Cant said that state funding had become so minimal by 2011 that its loss was not significant. To make up for the loss, FFA landed corporate sponsorships. These sponsorships will be retained if HB 2444 is approved by the Legislature.

See complete story in Wednesday's Observer