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- Show Notes
We’re celebrating National Teacher Appreciation Day on this episode of the podcast! Jenny Kreisher interviews Ashley Yanego, agriculture educator and FFA advisor at Signal Knob Middle School in Shenandoah County, VA. Ashley may not have grown up in an agriculture family, but after finding her passion for the industry through her own experiences in FFA and with the guidance of two inspiring teachers, Ashley knew she was meant to find her way back to the classroom to make her own impact on the next generation.
Welcome back to the Farm Credit AgVocates Podcast, I’m your host Jenny Kreisher, Director of Communications at MidAtlantic Farm Credit. I think we can all look back at moments of our lives and pinpoint a few moments that really shaped who we are, and who we strive to become. Sometimes it’s a person who made that impact, while other times it may have been an experience, like a trip you went on or a particular food you ate.
Our guest today is Ashley Yanego, Ag teacher and FFA advisor at Signal Knob Middle School in Shenandoah County, Virginia. After taking an agricultural education class in middle school and becoming highly involved in FFA, Ashley’s life forever changed, and she knew teaching was the right career path for her. After taking a gap year to serve as State President for Virginia FFA, Ashley attended Virginia Tech to pursue her dream. She graduated in 2020, and immediately found her way back into the very same classroom that shaped who she is today, with hopes of doing the same with her Ag students.
So, let’s jump right in! Welcome to the pod, Ashley!
Thanks for having me!
We appreciate your time.
For our audience who may not know about you, would you give us a little bit of background of where you're from and what your Ag experience was like growing up?
A Little Bit About Ashley
Of course. When it comes to me sharing my background with people in the agriculture community, when they see my last name, they question if I am from around here. They’re surprised when I tell them I was born and raised in Shenandoah County. I've always been here, my family's been here, so it's always been interesting to talk about that, but I'm thankful to be in Shenandoah County.
I was always aware of agriculture around me in terms of every kid knows that a cow moos and in Shenandoah County we have tons of fields around us. I've been accustomed to agriculture scenery, but I didn't really know what it was because I didn't grow up on a farm and I didn't have any farmer friends.
When I took my first Agriscience class in sixth grade, I started to learn about what that word meant and gained momentum with that program and FFA. I fell in love with it because of the people and the relationships. I'm from Shenandoah County and I don't have an agriculture background, but I love agriculture.
I went to Virginia Tech and I'm a first generation college student. No one in my family really knows what agriculture is, but they listen to all my stories and they've enjoyed seeing how it's helped me grow over time as well.
I also do not come from an agricultural background, but here I am working in one of the best industries out there, so it's definitely eye opening. I've learned a lot, as has my family from my similar stories.
How was it that you got in FFA? You mentioned an Agriscience class in sixth grade. Is that what sparked your interest in FFA?
I had some family things I was adjusting to around the time that I was entering middle school and an adult that I was close with was in FFA and they recommended me to take an Ag class. I was a 12 year old and they told me I was going to be in FFA, so I did it and it was the most life changing experience for me.
It brought me to the people who are my best friends and mentors today and it opened my eyes to the world around me and I had fun doing it. It was fun to learn in the classroom and go on trips with my friends.
As a middle schooler, I just thought that I was getting free food, free t-shirts and that I got to hang out with my friends after school. It was awesome. Then there were moments in FFA where you were recognized for awards and realize that you actually did do that.
I got a Service Award in middle school and I realized that was what I was doing when I was hanging out with my friends. I got to learn a lot about my community and civility through it. I tell my FFA members now and they don't believe me that I joined for the food, but I stuck with it for the friends and community.
FFA's Biggest Lessons
We have many employees across the Farm Credit system that are FFA alumni, and I've heard many of them speak so highly of the program and all of the things that they learned going through FFA.
What are some of the biggest lessons that you learned during your time?
I would definitely say relationship building and professionalism. In middle school, you start to learn about professionalism by tucking in your shirt, saying thank you to the judges of your contest and public speaking at your FFA banquet. Even those little moments as a middle schooler, you start to get exposed to professionalism.
When I got into high school, along with my ag teacher and other FFA members, we were advocating on the Hill for agriculture to legislators. In high school, we went from learning professionalism, leadership and public speaking to actually applying that into different ways as we got older.
Professionalism goes such a long way. I've seen it in my career, even with this being my first year teaching. I've also had a lot of other professional experiences in college where it was applied.
As a 22 year old teacher, I would definitely say other people admire my professionalism and relationship building ability and it all comes back to FFA. Those are definitely the biggest skills, not just learning about agriculture, food and natural resources, but those life skills for sure.
Ashley's Time as State President of Virginia FFA
Before you joined Virginia Tech, you actually took a year to serve as State President of Virginia FFA.
What goes along with holding that position? How does that differ from your experience when you were in middle and high school?
I had always wanted to be a State Officer. I was scouting it out since middle school because you get inspired by the State Officers when they come to your school and you just want to be one too.
When you run for State Office, there's other students your age about to graduate high school trying for the same opportunity. You've grown up with them in FFA and it’s like we get it or we don’t. That leads into what that position is about. I was the State President, but we were very humble in our titles and we all shared responsibilities in terms of going on chapter visits to meet FFA members.
We mingled and tried to influence them in the right direction with professionalism, relationship building and leadership. We also an advocacy part. I remember one of my teammates had to talk to a School Board office about the importance of an agriculture program.
We were not just mingling with middle schoolers and high schoolers, but we were very much trying to help people understand why agriculture programs and FFA are important, but also continue to appreciate and respect those who have always supported Ag and FFA.
As a State Officer, when you graduate high school you instantly have this amount of trust and you grow up fast because you are now representing thousands of people. It's a lot of pressure, but we had a lot of fun doing it. We had a great leader that led and taught us through it and it really set us apart professionally when we were done with our gap year as well.
Why Ashley Chose Virginia Tech
That is an incredible opportunity at such a young age. That’s very impressive. As you mentioned, when your gap year ended you then went to Virginia Tech. What was it about Virginia Tech that made you decide to go there? I went to Penn State, so I get the college culture completely.
What was it about Virginia Tech that you knew you needed to go there?
My first time going to Virginia Tech was as an FFA member. I was a seventh or eighth grader, but it was with my middle school FFA Chapter for State Convention. I remember seeing the Hokie bird dancing as the mascot and I was psyched and very excited about it. I'm a first generation college student, so it was also my first time being on a college campus. My other FFA members were excited about it too.
I was connected with it as it was the first college I’ve ever gone too. Because of FFA and a lot of FFA State Officers before me, my mentors, and some of my Ag teachers had gone there, I was influenced. I also wanted to stay close to home. I was a home body and my community really was my FFA community, so I didn't want to leave them either.
Every time I went on a college tour, I still loved it. I didn't really pick it for agricultural education, I picked it because of comfort and I was okay with that comfort. A lot of people say you can't grow if you're really comfortable, but I think that if you're intentional, you really can still grow. I was intentional about going there.
How Ashley Knew she was Destined to Teach
From that young experience they set the bar very high for you to go there. You're just comparing that to other schools and being in that atmosphere, that's hard to beat.
We mentioned a little bit ago, and even prior to the recording here, about the amazing teacher that really influenced you. You had a teacher in middle school that really inspired you to pursue this career.
Can you tell us a little bit about her and when you knew that teaching was the career path for you?
Anyone that's listening to the podcast that has been through an agriculture education program knows that you get close to your Ag teachers and they become like a parent or a mentor. That's what my Ag teachers definitely were for me. I get sad when I hear that some students don't have that experience with their FFA Advisor, but a lot of people do. It’s because the members spend more time with their advisor sometimes than they do their own parents.
Depending on how involved you are in FFA, you're staying after school almost every single day. You're going on trips throughout the summer and on the weekends, so you're with them all the time. My middle school and high school advisors went the extra mile with me because I had a unique home situation. FFA were my people. They would even pick me up for practices and help me figure out ways to pay for trips.
It was the enthusiasm, compassion and the inclusivity that I felt even though I wasn't a farmer, farm kid, or a normal kid who would be in FFA. I just found my place and they accepted me. It was the enthusiasm for my middle school advisor and what I always credit her for. She always had a big smile and excited tone no matter what.
My high school advisors taught me that I can't just do whatever I want, I have to earn what I want. Having both of those together and still talking with them, sometimes daily, I rely on their advice with teaching, but also in life. They also supported me throughout my college experience. I look back on what I wanted to do freshman year before I took a gap year and I wanted to be a Forester.
Yeah, I was all about it. I wanted to be outside and I even shadowed a Forester that my high school advisor connected me with.
When I learned about the paperwork he had to do, I realized that I did not want to be in an office. I thought that they got to be outside in the woods all day.
When I took that gap year and I was hanging out with FFA members, I realized that's what I enjoy doing. I always felt like teaching Ag was almost the easy choice for me because it's something I knew I loved and I knew some things about. Every time I tried to find what I was meant to do, it always came back to teaching.
The Experiences that Prepared Ashley for Teaching
Well, aside from earning your degree, what other experiences did you have throughout your time at Virginia Tech that you feel prepared for the role you have now?
I don't feel that my degree actually prepared me at all for teaching. That's pretty blunt, but I only had a few classes where I felt I had really learned something I could carry over with me for teaching. I'm actually still earning some credit hours because when my dream position opened up, I applied immediately.
I'm teaching Ag, but I'm still going to school, so it didn't really end for me. When I got to college, I continued my involvement with FFA. I stayed involved with the organization, facilitated FFA members, and went to banquets and fundraisers for FFA.
They were back home in my community, so sometimes if I went home for the weekend, I would show up at events or I would coach them through public speaking contests. I also became a substitute for when I came home for Christmas break from Virginia Tech.
I was pretty intentional about keeping relationships and communication open where I wanted to teach. Relationship building and professionalism is something I learned from FFA.
I had a lot of professional experiences during College. I worked with the College of Ag and Life Sciences Communications department running their social media for a while. I got to make videos and graphics for their social media and that was super fun. It was cool to keep mingling with adults that were in that profession and get to do presentations with them because it helped me exercise that professional side.
At school, I was a tour guide in a service organization and I was even in an acapella group. I did everything I could to stay involved with people. If anyone has been in FFA, you’ll hear them say they know someone from almost every single state, they know people who have been in FFA or they work with people in FFA.
You never know where you're going to see people again, so I love to meet as many people as I can just in case I see them down the road again. We can reminisce on the positive relationship and experiences that we had. I intentionally did a little bit of everything in college. I think it really was my continued involvement with FFA and the school system that helped me get the job I have now.
Receiving a Farm Credit Foundation Scholarship
One really fun tie –in I found between you and Farm Credit, is that you were actually a recipient of one of our Farm Credit Foundation for Agricultural Advancement Scholarships when you were a freshman.
I'm just curious how you learned about that opportunity and what was it that made you apply?
I credit Farm Credit for supporting my education holistically. Being first generation, I had no money saved up and no one in my family was talking about college. I didn't really know what to expect other than when I got older in high school, I knew it was something I had to do.
Taking that gap year gave me time to get a stronger game plan on what to do before college. Virginia Tech was holding my acceptance for Agricultural Sciences during my gap year. I found the scholarship on social media and applied for it. I got the call saying that I had gotten it while I was at a State Parliamentary Procedure contest with FFA members.
It was a weird number and I didn’t know if it was Farm Credit or not. I answered and got the best news ever. My Ag teacher was there, so I could tell him that I had gotten the scholarship. I think he was one of my letters of recommendations, so it was cool that I was still in a space with my supporters when a new supporter had entered my life, which was Farm Credit. I recently received another Farm Credit scholarship to help me continue with classes to be an Ag teacher.
During that time, when I got the scholarship, I said I want to be an Ag teacher or a Lobbyist. I clearly went the Ag teacher route and gave up on living on Capitol Hill or around there. Even now some of the people on the committees that I work with at Farm Bureau, work with Farm Credit or they know someone with Farm Credit. Farm Credit is also around in my community as well.
The Importance of Youth Ag Education
Oh, that's awesome to hear. Well kind of bringing it back a little bit to what you're doing currently and your experience as a student.
Why do you feel Ag education is important in the public school system or any system? Why should the youth be learning about it?
Even when I talk to veteran teachers in my building who have been teaching for over 20 years, some of them are now about to retire, they credit our Ag program and FFA on how it develops our students.
It makes them hopeful for the future because they see the skills our students are learning. They are learning how to respect and talk to adults and their peers. They also start to develop that understanding of what's not okay when you interact with the world around you and what is okay. They are learning life skills.
I taught my students last week about soils and natural resources, so now they're becoming more aware of their involvement in the literal world around them. They are learning how their actions can affect the earth. We're making them more aware about natural resources and food around them.
I'm not trying to make all of my middle schoolers become mechanics by doing woodworking in the shop. Some of the skills that they're learning are definitely applicable to so many other things that they could become involved with.
As a student and as a State Officer, it seemed really fun and easy to be an Ag teacher. My Ag teachers had a lot of fun with it and they made it look super easy. As a State Officer, I had a lot of fun and I have fun as a teacher now. It is hard to juggle so many different students and FFA, while also trying to continue the support for the program.
We still battle every year trying to prove that our program matters. I try to get more production Ag and technology opportunities, but trying to find the money to bring that to our students is challenging. Our students are humble. They don't know what opportunities we could have because we try our best to give them what we do have.
The support that we have and the potential to have greater support can only bring better opportunities for our students to become functioning adults in society. The FFA Creed talks a lot about leadership and respect. The Creed was written in 1930 and it has never changed because it talks about values in agriculture and in life that are still so true to the development of a person.
One of them is talking about leadership from yourself and respect from others. A lot of our students are for some reason becoming removed from some of those points. They still need to learn leadership and respect on top of the curriculum learned in class. They need to learn more about themselves and how they can do those things.
I hope that they become diligent in their work and learn those skills. I think what they'll realize when graduating high school, college, skills school, or whatever they end up doing is that the people that they want to work with that are respectful leaders are likely in the agriculture industry or they had somewhere along the line been in an Ag class or FFA. We have skills that are really rooted in a positive society and within civility. I hope that they choose those communities that teach them respect and leadership.
What Ashley Wishes People Knew about the Ag Community
One thing we talk a lot about at Farm Credit is the Ag education piece with consumers, especially because more and more people these days are very curious about where their food comes from and how it's grown. The local movement has taken over, especially as of late, as we're navigating this pandemic.
What is something that you wish people knew about the Ag industry?
I used to wish that people knew how hard it was for farmers to really start from seeds to what ends up on your table and all of the work that goes into agriculture. Now as a teacher and working with farmers, I wish people knew that it's a two way street.
We need the support from consumers and communities and we need a common understanding. I hear students who are trying to get an understanding on agriculture, and they don't know the difference between organic or not organic. There’s viral videos on social media that talks about vegan people being bad or negative, but there's two sides to agriculture.
Someone whose vegan still uses agriculture in their daily life, they just have a different diet. People can choose to eat or ship differently, but agriculture is everywhere and it's not just for certain people.
Creating that understanding and support for our industry is important if we're going to keep going. No matter what you support, we just have to support agriculture in general. It’s a choice as a consumer about what you want to do, but no matter the choice, we need agriculture.
Advice for Aspiring Teachers
If you were asked to give advice to a young aspiring teacher, what is it that you would tell them?
Even though this is only my first year teaching, I feel like I have been here for a long time in the best way possible. When I see former FFA members or my peers in other fields becoming Ag teachers, I just tell them good luck and to roll with the punches.
Something that my high school advisor told me is that they don’t teach you everything in college, they just can’t. You have to learn as you experience it.
The highlight of organizations like Ag and FFA is that you have to physically go through an experience and be able to make those decisions and see how it turns out. There is no rule book on how to do this, you just have to create your own way.
That’s the most exciting part is that you get to make a program or make your career what you want it to be, but that's also the scary part sometimes. Good luck and stick with it.
What Ashley Advocates for in Ag
I've really appreciated talking to you, Ashley. This has been so much fun. I have one more question before we wrap up here, and this is one that we ask all of our guests at the end.
What is it that you advocate for in agriculture?
I advocate for supporting agriculture education because we have to start with the youth. They're going to grow up into adults that either know information about agriculture and natural resources or they won't. I constantly am advocating for support, whether it's monetary, talent or just your time into educational programs like FFA and 4-H.
That's a great way to end Ashley. Thank you so much for your time today.
I want to thank everyone who tuned in. If you liked this episode, please rate, review, subscribe, and share this with a friend. You can head over to mafc.com/podcast to get all of the notes from today's episode and subscribe to email alerts to be told when new episodes are going to drop. If you have any topic or guest suggestions, we'd love to hear from you. You can email us at email@example.com. Thanks everyone so much and keep on advocating.