Featured Farmer: Sarah VanDerVliet
Featured Farmer: Sarah VanDerVliet
Hands-on experiences, new technologies and leadership skills are all important parts of today’s agricultural education programs. Sarah VanDerVliet has been the agriculture education teacher and FFA Advisor at Tri-Valley School in Colton, South Dakota, for 16 years and brings a combination of education and real-world agricultural experiences to the role.
VanDerVliet grew up on an acreage and earned her Agriculture Education degree at South Dakota State University. Her husband Ryan was farming with his father and also working part time, while Sarah took a job as a feed nutritionist/salesman at Colton Farmers Elevator. Over the years, they have had several livestock enterprises, including raising Holstein bottle calves for dairy farms. They built a barn to feed 400 head of cattle and formed Triple RJ LLC with Ryan’s sisters and parents. She became ag education teacher at Tri-Valley in 2005.“It is a unique position for me because it is the same school I grew up in and graduated from,” she said. “I love the personal connection I have with the families and how my students feel like my own kids.”
The VanDerVliets have four children, Weston (15), Clara (13), Taygen (10), Cashlynn (7), who are also involved in the farm, 4-H and FFA. The family purchased a few sheep as a 4-H project in 2015, which has grown to a herd of 50 sheep that the kids care for all year and exhibit at fairs and livestock shows. They also have 60 laying chickens to provide eggs for the family.
“I strongly believe that my day to day experiences on the farm provide a true learning experience for my students,” she said. “When I teach marketing, I can provide them with real life numbers and true outcomes. When we talk about feeding, animal husbandry, veterinary care I can bring in real tools that are used to demonstrate and provide real video of different things I encounter to bring the farm to the classroom.”
VanDerVliet also brings in eggs from the family’s coop to hatch and learn about breeds, candling, hatching and raising a laying chicken. When students learn about egg production, she brings in farm eggs for them to observe and cook and eat. “Agriculture Education and the FFA Program do a phenomenal job of keeping up with current trends and preparing students for future careers,” she said. “My goal as a teacher is to have the students leave my classroom with skills of work ethic, responsibility, respect, and the ability to look at a problem and solve it with the current tools and technology that we have at our fingertips.”
She teaches students in grades 7 through 12, including Intro to Agriculture, Animal Science, Wildlife & Fisheries, Building Trades, and Internship courses, and an exploratory agriculture class for middle school students. Hands-on projects are an important part of ag curriculum, including working with Natural Beauty Growers in Ellis to secure plants to grow in small pop-up greenhouses. They also use National Archery in Schools Program to learn how to shoot a bow and arrow.
“One of my favorite units in Animal Science is purchasing broiler chickens as chicks and raise them for 7 weeks and then process them. Students learn the cost of production and how to raise and process food to put on their own supper tables,” she said. “I have incorporated this unit in the last three years because I feel there is a disconnect between where our food comes from. This is a great opportunity for students to see firsthand what it takes to gently care and raise an animal from start to finish.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has been especially challenging for the hands-on experiences that are normally part of VanDerVliet’s classes, but she has learned new ways to teach online and interact with students. “I am learning that communication is the key to success during this pandemic. Even though I know this can be a scary time, I am just grateful I have the opportunity to provide my students an educational experience in person in a classroom they feel comfortable in,” she said.”
While Tri-Valley is located in a rural area, most of her students live in small towns or the city. VanDerVliet sees agriculture as more important than ever to ensure that students understand all the facets of agriculture and what it provides for not only our food supply, but also economic impact on rural communities and the entire state.