NCSU - Women in Agriculture Q&A (part 1)

January 22, 2021

Most agricultural educators can quickly identify 1969 as the year females were admitted to national FFA membership and that Julie Smiley was the first female national FFA officer in 1976 and Jan Eberly was the first female national FFA president in 1982.

But how many of us know when females were selected to be the presidents of our three major professional agricultural education organizations – the NAAE (National Association of Agriculture Educators - previously known as the NVATA – National Vocational Agriculture Teachers Association), the NASAE (National Association of Supervisors of Agricultural Education) and the AAAE (American Association for Agricultural Education – formerly known as the AATEA – American Association of Teacher Educators in Agriculture).

In this Friday Footnote we will learn more about the first female presidents of these three professional organizations. They are:

  •  MeeCee Baker – NVATA President (1996-97)
  •  Karen Hutchison – NASAE President (2002-03)
  •  Jacque Deeds – AAAE President (2006-07)

This Footnote will take a Question-Answer format. This is Part I. Next week we will conclude this Footnote with Part II.


Were you in agriculture/FFA in high school?

MeeCee: I was not permitted to schedule an agriculture class in high school because of my gender.  Really?  This was almost a decade after women were permitted to join FFA and even my Mother was enrolled in high school agricultural education in the 1940s.  She liked to tell stories about her teacher and brag that she won the carpentry award, beating out a male cousin.  But Juniata County (Pennsylvania) was not exactly progressive on the educational front in the 1970s, and I was destined to suffer through home economics, or rather, Mrs. Fronk was destined to suffer through with me. 

Note:  My Mom left college for two years to weld during the war using skills she learned on the farm and in the high school agriculture classroom.  She eventually had a very long and successful teaching career.  Her students, now in their 70s and 80s, still comment on how much they loved her.  She was a champion for the underdog.

Karen: I was not enrolled in any agriculture classes in high school, which was in the early 70’s. I did ask about taking an ag class but was discouraged from doing it by my guidance counselor since I was on the college prep track. Instead, I was enrolled in an interior design class.

Jacque: I was able to take agriculture classes at Drain High School (Oregon) before girls were able to be in FFA. Dan Dunham was my first ag teacher and he thought girls should be in ag and FFA. He was a former Oregon FFA President and National President. We could participate in district events (I won the District Creed but the second-place boy went to state). We could show livestock at county and state fairs but not judge at the state level.

The state supervisor called me in 1969 and offered me the opportunity to get my State Degree I declined because all my cattle had been sold to help pay my college expenses. (I later received Honorary State degrees in Oregon, Ohio, and Mississippi and my Honorary American degree.)

What was your higher education pathway?

MeeCee: Like many farm kids who head off to college, I wanted to be a vet.  That is until, like many farm kids, I had my first run-in with organic chemistry, the dreaded “O” chem.  Two tries later my fate was sealed.  There would be no veterinary medical school in my future.  Becoming a livestock agent with the Cooperative Extension Service seemed like the next best option. My major was changed, and I entered the Department of Agricultural and Extension Education at Penn State. 

I distinctly remember being in the halls of Armsby Building when the late Dr. Donald Evans asked me if I would consider changing my option from Extension to education.  I never thought about becoming an agriculture teacher. After all, I had been denied admission to a high school program just a few years earlier.  However, Dr. Evan’s suggestion settled, and it was not long before I changed my option to education and began a career trajectory that I previously could never have imagined.  There were bumps, lots of bumps, along the way.

I came to revere my agricultural education professors and am still in contact with a few, like Drs. Jim Diamond and Ed Yoder.   The classes were both informative and fun, except for the time I almost electrocuted a classmate in the welding lab, or when all my birds died in the unfortunate caponizing class.  I also remember spirited discussions regarding the suitability of females to teach agriculture.  My dear friend Dr. Carol Hardbarger and I swear we have PTSD resulting from discussions with an Army veteran classmate who vehemently thought we were out of our element. 

Karen: When I graduated from high school, I was unsure of what I wanted to do but having grown up on a farm, I knew I enjoyed working with plants and animals so I decided to start at the community college in agribusiness so I have my associate's degree.

I was fortunate enough to have a very encouraging counselor who encouraged me to continue my education and work on my bachelor’s degree. He had a brother-in-law at Virginia Tech, so he encouraged me to check out the school. After a trip to campus, I knew that is where I wanted to be. Also, Virginia Tech transferred all but 3 of my community college credits. I chose to major in Agriculture Education because I could take both plant and animal science classes.

When I was finishing my degree, I was once again fortunate to have someone who provided me with wise advice. I was not sure if teaching is what I wanted to do, even though I had a great student teaching experience at Buffalo Gap HS, but Dr. John Hillison encouraged me to try it noting that it would be easier to leave the profession than to jump in after a different career, so that is what I did. There was an ag teacher shortage then as there is now so finding a job was not difficult.

While teaching, I went on to the University of Delaware and earned a master’s degree in vocational studies. I earned my Ed.D. in Educational Leadership while working at the Delaware Department of Education.

Jacque: I went to Oregon State University and started in Animal Science but Dan Dunham (my former ag teacher) who was at OSU doing doctoral work convinced me to go to Ag Ed.  I completed my master’s at Oregon State while teaching in 1979 mostly by taking classes during the summer.

At the AVA/NVATA conference in 1982 Dan once again guided my career and said it was time to get my Ph.D. and invited me to come to OSU east (Ohio State). I visited and received an offer and went there between 1983-85. While at Ohio State I was President of the Ag-Ed graduate student club.

Did you teach high school agriculture? Where and When?

MeeCee: I eventually moved through student teaching and into a one-year teaching position taking the place of Dr. Arba Henry, who was on sabbatical to complete his doctoral research.  During this year, I was mentored by Ron Althoff, my teaching partner.  His guidance helped me to fully appreciate and understand the essential nature of SAE and the importance of visiting students’ projects. I was from a row crop, forage, and cattle kind of area and quickly had to acclimate to a broader expanse of agriculture that included mushrooms, tobacco, and bedding plant production.  Ron helped me through the typical first-year rough patches and gave me the solid foundation I needed to be a successful teacher.  However, when that rookie year ended, I knew I needed to expand my education and entered an MS program in agricultural economics at the University of Delaware (U of D). 

At U of D, I joined a diverse eclectic group of graduate students who studied hard and played even harder.  We formed the infamous, at least in our minds, Cow Patties co-ed intramural football team and won the championship!  Occasionally, my teammates let me quarterback.  Midway through my second year, an opportunity arose to take a teaching position in swine science at a commutable school in New Jersey.  I jumped at the opportunity and quickly found out that I would be joining the Union (as dictated by the boss who visited me on the first day), that feeding hogs outside of Camden meant slopping cooked restaurant garbage, not a ration, the late King Kong Bundy had been a faculty member, and students could smoke in the parking lot provided they had a parental note.  Despite the color commentary, this school district was ahead of its’ time.  The programming was a combination comprehensive and vocational career and technical center.  Students could seamlessly slip among the classes cobbling together custom-made curriculums. I will always remember the mutual respect between those directly headed to careers and those entering college.  Nothing like having a classmate cut your hair, fix your car, or help with an algebra assignment.  I will also say that being a female agriculture teacher in New Jersey felt quite normal in 1984. It just wasn’t an issue.  As the academic year closed, my Dad’s health was slipping, and I felt pulled back to the farm.  I wrapped up my MS degree and headed home to Pennsylvania.

Finding another agriculture position proved difficult and gut-wrenching.

That summer, an opening was available at East Juniata High School where my Uncle was the principal.  I turned down an offer for a science slot after being reassured that I was a top contender for that agriculture job.  August ground on and an interview never came.  I mustered up the strength to speak to my Uncle who told me I should have known a woman could not teach agriculture in “that end of the county” (since then women have).  The sting still hurts especially considering the administration was not entirely candid and the administration was my Dad’s brother.  I happened into a science spot in mid-September and taught seven repetitive classes of physical science for two years.  It was income.

An announcement for an agriculture job at Greenwood School District appeared in the PA School Board Association Bulletin.  I applied immediately and was granted an interview.  The superintendent met me at the door on the set day and instead of going inside, we toured the district, stopping at a few farms.  He asked about my computer and mechanical skills since that was the program’s emphasis.  I told the truth.  They were poor.  Nevertheless, I was hired and started teaching 16 boys in a traditional Ag I, II, III, and IV curriculum.  Shortly after school started that fall, the superintendent was fired, and I am convinced to this day he pushed for me in order to punish the farmers on the School Board who ousted him.

The boys were less than thrilled and the shop teacher who taught beside me, bemused.  Herm watched me and my students construct greenhouses out of pallets to use in SAE projects.  The day we finished, he sauntered over to my room to ask how we would get them through my small classroom doorway.  And so, it went.  The students’ fathers were even less impressed.  An effort to move me along started to gain some momentum. 

When I recruited two young women to join the ranks the following year, the tenor began to change.  Then the entrance of Amy and Krista Byers (Pontius) into my classroom a few years after that marked the change of the program’s trajectory.  Amy’s Dad was the School Board member who helped me usher in a change to an agriscience curriculum.  With that, the numbers grew exponentially.  When I left years later, there were over 100 students in the 9-12 program in a school that graduates 50 or 60.  And by the way, Krista is one of the two agriculture teachers at Greenwood today.  They are hoping to hire a third.

Karen: I taught high school ag for 13 years, 10 in one school and 3 in a second. The first 10 years were in a traditional high school with a very supportive community. This was at Woodbridge High School in Bridgeville, Delaware from 1979-1989. The next 3 years were in a vocational center; my first year was a shared time school (Kent Vo-Tech) that transitioned to a fulltime school (Polytech HS - fulltime career and tech center) for my last two. I taught there from 1989-1992.

Jacque: 1972-1975 North Clackamas Skills Center and feeder high schools -- Clackamas Oregon.  The program had five teachers that taught one-hour Agriculture I-II classes at the high school and two-hour Ag III-IV at the Sabin Skills Center.  We had a large land lab and a full-time lab manager.  Milwaukee High School had the Ag class in the old Band Hall about a half block from the main school.  One day one of the students in an all-male class asked “Are you afraid to be out here alone with us?”  I said I was not, but should I be?

1975-1977 Cottage Grove High School. Cottage Grove was closer to home and a program that needed rebuilding.  After a year and a half, the Cottage Grove Schools closed because of a lack of budget and I returned to Oregon State to work on the State Department’s standards project and complete my master’s course.

1977-1983 Clatsop County Intermediate Education District. We had a vocational center with three teachers that serviced Seaside, Astoria, and Warrenton high schools in the county.  All classes were 2 hours long and included Ag 1-2 and specialized courses in Animal Science, Horticulture, Agriculture Mechanics and Forestry. I taught an Ag 4 class that brought some students back together with an emphasis on leadership development.  We had a weekly 5-minute radio program in which the students wrote on their area of interest (sometimes a recommendation from the County Extension Agent related to a local problem or concern). We always included a minute on FFA news like competition results, fundraising activities, and upcoming events.

To be continued next week. In Part II of this Friday Footnote these individuals respond to the following questions:

  •  Anything of interest or notable during your high school teaching career? What was it like teaching in a male-dominated field?
  •  How did you get involved in your professional organization?
  •  What was your experience as the first female president of your organization?
  •  What are you doing now?
  •  What advice would you give the profession?


Stay tuned!

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