SUTHERLIN — Wes Crawford got involved in FFA as a sophomore at Sutherlin High School to make money, but quickly realized the program had more value than animal sales.
“A lot of people think of it as showing animals at the fair. That’s not even 10 percent of the program,” he said. “There is so much more that goes on throughout the year.”
Drawn early to FFA’s travel and networking opportunities, Crawford, now 29, found a passion for the program that hasn’t faded. For the past six years, the 2001 Sutherlin High graduate has taught agriculture at his alma mater.
Sutherlin High School Principal Justin Huntley said the school’s FFA program has become immensely popular under Crawford’s tenure. There are 120 students in the Sutherlin FFA chapter, making it one of the largest in Douglas County, he said.
“It’s bulging at the seams. The only thing we could do is hire another teacher,” Huntley said. “I could add another class and it would be full.”
Not only popular with students, Crawford has been recognized on the national level for integrating science into his agriculture lessons. He’s one of five regional winners of the National Association of Agricultural Educators’ National Agriscience Teacher of the Year award.
As the top teacher in the 11-state western region, Crawford was awarded a $1,500 grant that the Sutherlin FFA program will use to purchase animal and veterinary science equipment.
Huntley wrote a letter nominating Crawford for the award.
“Having worked in schools where agriculture education is seen and projected as a tractor-driving, hay-chewing program, it is nice to work with Wes, who is on the forefront of best practices in all that he does,” Huntley wrote.
In December, Crawford will attend a national convention in Atlanta to formally accept the award.
“There’s a lot of great people out there; to be recognized for something like this is very humbling,” he said.
Crawford said he hasn’t found it difficult to incorporate science into his agriculture classes. To meet new state high school science education standards, he tailored lessons so Sutherlin High students can earn science credit for his agricultural biology and advanced animal science classes. For instance, students learn about genetics, a key component of high school biology curriculum, while studying horticulture and animal husbandry.
“We meet the same standards. We just teach in different context,” Crawford said.
Agricultural science skills are becoming very marketable, he said. Seed producers and other agriculture companies are in desperate need of scientists, Crawford said.
“Companies big and small literally cannot hire enough scientists,” he said. “They cannot get enough people into those careers and they’re worried because there’s been a lot retirements.”
Crawford said he not only teaches students about being farmers and ranchers, but also about going into veterinary medicine, forestry or viticulture. He emphasizes the business and technology sides of agriculture.
“To focus solely on teaching kids to be production agriculturalists isn’t enough,” Crawford said. “Kids are like, ‘I never understood that this was a career field that I could go into,’ and furthermore, they’re fields that have a lot of opportunity.”
Agriculture is part of Crawford’s heritage. His family has owned a ranch outside Sutherlin since 1924. In the 1950s, it produced milk for Umpqua Dairy, but now the ranch is primarily used to raise sheep and cattle, Crawford said.
His ancestors came over the Oregon Trail and settled in Wilbur in the 1850s.
After graduating from Sutherlin High School, Crawford spent a year as a state FFA officer. During that time, he interacted with FFA students from throughout the state. It inspired him to become an agriculture teacher to help the next generation get involved in FFA.
He earned bachelor’s degrees in animal science and general agriculture from Oregon State University in Corvallis.
Huntley said he’s been impressed with Crawford’s efforts to rally Sutherlin FFA alumni, rasing $60,000 to build a new greenhouse at Sutherlin High.
Students love being around Crawford, Huntley said.
“He’s kind of that Pied Piper that kids just naturally want to be in his classes and want to be in FFA,” he said. “He does things well and kids want to be part of that.”
Crawford said he’s found teaching incredibly rewarding.
“There’s not too many careers where you can have such an influence on the success of others as education,” he said.
• You can reach reporter Inka Bajandas at 541-957-4202 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.