Agriculture at home and beyond: Nebraska advisors start homeschool FFA group

In August 2022 a dream became a reality when the Nebraska Agricultural Academy began accepting applications from Nebraska homeschoolers who wanted to enroll in FFA. Ann Dvorak and Breann Zimmer are the academy’s co-founders. The third member of the team is Katie Shadbolt. All three ladies are Nebraska Certified Agriculture Educators.

“I taught Ag in Bassett, Nebraska for 14 years before starting my private school. The Ag teaching world is very small, so I knew Breann and we had talked about and dreamed of starting an FFA chapter for homeschool students. We wanted to offer them the opportunity to be part of FFA but still homeschool,” Ann Dvorak said. “I was a public-school Ag teacher for three years, but I was curious about homeschooling and maybe wanting to homeschool in the future. Through conversations I found that I wanted to provide FFA to the homeschool space. When we decided to do it, I posted on some Facebook groups and we received eleven applications,” Breann Zimmer said. “We have students from Firth to Gordon.” 

Zimmer is the head teacher and co-FFA advisor, Shadbolt is also assistant teacher and co-FFA advisor and Dvorak is the Admissions Coordinator and Assistant FFA Advisor. The three teamed up to create an unforgettable and inclusive online agriculture education academy for homeschool students. According to their website they have rooted this Academy in the word “service” inspired by the last line of the FFA motto, ”Living to Serve.” The motto signifies the vital role service plays in FFA and Agriculture Education. 

Students and teachers at their first annual banquet, also pictured their guest speaker Monty Larsen with UNL – ALEC Department and former Stuart, Nebraska Ag Teacher. 

One challenge homeschool groups can face is the lack of a physical address, but Dvorak was able to solve it. “I run a private homeschool in Bassett called Schoolhouse Rock. We have been able to use my school’s physical location for the FFA chapter. And that gives us a region for the students to compete in.”  

Recently the Nebraska Agricultural Academy received a $10,000 grant for an FFA Chapter Startup. The grant is provided through Farm Credit Services of America’s (FCSAmerica) Working Here Fund. 

First officer team, (L to R) August Schow, Treasurer, Olivia Beel, Vice President, Taya Hambleton, President, Mahaya Jones, Secretary and Kayli Rose, Sentinel. 

The Working Here Fund grant will be used for an FFA start-up. Funds will be used to cover costs such as contest registrations, industry tours, meeting supplies, and national FFA convention costs.   

“This grant will help create a financial foundation for this chapter, allowing homeschool students the benefits of FFA involvement,” said Dvorak. “FFA has a strong track record in building up leaders that then impact their local communities.” 

“At FCSAmerica, many of us grew up in agriculture and continue to farm. We know first-hand the value of agriculture education and are proud to partner with the Nebraska Agricultural Academy to ensure future generations have the same opportunities for learning,” said Zach Gansebom, regional vice president of retail operations at FCSAmerica’s O’Neill office in a press release. 

The Nebraska Agricultural Academy is one of 56 organizations to receive an expanded Working Here Fund grant in the fourth quarter of 2022. FCSAmerica awarded each organization up to $10,000 for a total of $306,250 to support projects focused on agricultural education, hunger and nutrition, young and beginning producers or essential services and rural disaster relief. 

Dvorak said she had applied for grants before and that FCS likes to help out FFA chapters, but she wasn’t sure how they would feel about supporting a homeschool chapter. “In public school the school pays for the travel and registration costs for competitions but currently our families are having to pay for most things themselves. We have had a fundraiser and will be having more and applying for more grants. I have had so many Ag teachers who have been around our kids, say it’s been rewarding to watch them compete, they are well spoken.” 

Dvorak said she would like to in the future help start more chapters across the state and make FFA and Ag education more available to homeschool students, especially to those in more urban communities. “We are changing how homeschool students are viewed and doing what is best for all children in the state by providing the best education for all students. These kids are so excited to be a part, they are happy, they study hard and have more drive. Their families are paying for them to be there and they seem more appreciative.”  Students or their families pay tuition to the agricultural school group and also finance travel costs and entry fees for competitions.

The teachers feel that they are more than just teachers. They are advisors and coaches who are always available to serve their students and take pride in serving them. The FFA chapter expects to have 30 members in grades 6-12 by September 2024. These students will enjoy industry tours, competitions, and meetings throughout the year. ”Both Breann and I ran high quality Ag programs so that was our goal, and it has worked way better than we would have ever anticipated. For being virtually connected the kids are very close knit and the level of engagement has gone above and beyond both of our expectations,” Dvorak said. 

Zimmer lives near Gibbon, Nebraska and she traveled to each student’s home to see their projects and offer guidance. “Our members have been very successful in competitions both regionally and at state. Our eleven students attend class virtually through Google classroom. All the classes are online and competitions and special events are in person.” 

She said they have never really advertised the academy and they have had a lot of interest from out of state. “It has spread through mainly word of mouth and social media. The response rate has been very successful. We have different types of students, but they are all very motivated and excited to get to know other people. They are from across the state, and it is available to students from 7th grade to 12th grade and enrollment is open for the coming school year on our website” 

The women behind the Nebraska Agricultural Academy, Katie Shadbolt, Breann Zimmer and Ann Dvorak. Nebraska Agricultural Academy | Courtesy photos
Nebraska Agricultural Academy students attending a livestock judging competition. The families are responsible travel to competitions.