WAYNE, Neb. | Agriculture's importance to the area is pretty much a given.
Corn, beans, hogs, cattle and a number of other crops and animals are common sights from Siouxland highways, as are the many businesses that owe their existence to the agriculture industry.
It's no surprise, then, that high schools across the area have developed agriculture education programs that expose students, farm and city kids alike, to several aspects of agriculture.
But it is a surprise that until this year, a school the size of Wayne High School, with a high school enrollment approaching 300 students, did not offer agriculture-specific classes.
"I was surprised, just knowing the community and knowing the area," said Toni Rasmussen, who in December was hired as the school's first ag teacher and in August began teaching ag classes and helping the school charter a Future Farmers of America chapter.
A farm kid herself who was involved in FFA before graduating from Boone Central High School in Albion, Nebraska, Rasmussen is tackling the challenge of starting a program from square one with classes in introduction to agriculture, animal science, agribusiness and plant science. She again was surprised by the level of interest students had in the classes and in FFA. It's not just kids who live on farms who signed up. Many seem to realize that the ag industry has deep roots that affect many facets of a rural area.
"Kids see that just because you don't have a direct tie to agriculture doesn't mean you don't have a tie," Rasmussen said.
Those with direct ties are taking advantage of the chance to learn more about an industry in which they plan to seek a career.
"I was so excited," junior Mariah Frevert said when she learned last spring that ag classes would be available this year. "I want to be in agriculture. I want to be a veterinarian. This is just really preparing me for the future."
Frevert is also the first president of the school's fledgling FFA chapter, which has attracted interest from nearly 30 students.
The interest is encouraging for Rasmussen and school administrators, who had long desired an ag program. When one of the school's two industrial technology teachers retired last spring, high school principal Mark Hanson, a former ag teacher himself, said it presented the school with an opportunity to add to and strengthen its career/technical education, or CTE, program.
"It really fills in an area I think we were lacking in," Hanson said.
Community response, especially from local businesses, to the new program has been positive, Hanson said. But the most encouraging response has been from students, many of whom are excited to explore new classes or join FFA, which offers leadership opportunities and more in addition to ag education. Having an ag program exposes students to concepts and careers they never may have realized existed.
"To me, it's going to open up a lot of possibilities for kids to things they're not even aware of," Hanson said.
And for students already contemplating careers in agriculture, it gives them a head start on their preparations.
"It would be good to know some of the basic things for college that will help you later," said Casey Koenig, a sophomore who said he's considering a career in precision agriculture.
It's comments like those that Rasmussen said she has grown accustomed to hearing as she and her students begin exploring their new ag program together.
"I think about once a week I'll hear, 'I'm glad we have ag classes,'" Rasmussen said.