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Women in Ag Network - April/May Feature

by Megan Roberts, Extension educator

Natalie Utsch
As we continue to adapt to and live with the new normal of COVID-19, Women in Ag Network is continuing our series of “woman in ag” interviews. Although we can’t be together in person, we can connect to one another online, and our feature stories are great for an online, distance setting. This month we meet Natalie Utsch, the ag instructor and FFA advisor at Paynesville Area Schools. As secondary schools have transitioned to distance learning, agriculture teachers have had to become creative in meeting the needs of their students. Below we learn more about Natalie’s background, how she chose her career, and how she has ingeniously adapted her courses during COVID-19.

WAGN: Tell us about your background and how you chose your career. 
Natalie: I grew up in St. James on a hobby farm. My sisters and I raised pigs that we showed at the fairs and grew/sold sweet corn with my grandparents. For the longest time I wanted to be a veterinarian and that helped me to choose the U of M - Twin Cities for animal science in the pre-vet program. While working at the MN State Fair in the Oink Booth as a pork ambassador, I discovered that I enjoyed teaching people about agriculture and food production. I changed by major to Agricultural Education and graduated from the U of M in 2004. Since then I have been the Ag teacher and FFA advisor in Paynesville. Over my 16 years, I have seen many changes, and we have expanded our offering and program. We now offer agriculture classes to both middle schoolers and high schoolers. High schoolers have a variety of ag classes which now include food classes with an agriculture emphasis. We now have 70 FFA members grades 7-12. Recently our community passed a referendum approving a remodel of our Career and Technical Education (CTE) area, addition of an automotive center, and a field house. Construction will start this week on the remodel, and our ag program will get a new and improved "home." I look forward to sharing my passion for agriculture with my students in our new space next year.

WAGN: What do you like most about teaching ag, food, and natural resources? 
Natalie: I really enjoy the variety that agricultural education offers. Each hour is different. I can go from teaching students to weld one hour, to putting together a floral arrangement the next hour, to teaching about artificial insemination the next, and then canning spaghetti sauce the next hour. Ag Ed provides numerous opportunities to capture different students' attention to help them find their passion and develop their interests. It also puts information content into real life situations, so students can relate to it and understand it better. It answers the question "when am I going to use this in my life?" The hands-on approach through agricultural education really ties in with the FFA motto - "Learning to Do, Doing to Learn. Earning to Live, Living to Serve." During classroom instruction, students learn how to do a concept or skill, but they learn it more when they physically do it and that enforces the learning. These skills can be transferable to careers where they will use them to earn a living and being contributing members of society as we serve others with our knowledge, skills, and passions.

WAGN: Learning about agriculture and food is an incredibly hands-on process. During the Covid-19 crisis, how have you adjusted to teaching from a distance? 
Natalie: I have done a combination of activities that involve technology, hands on, and activity based instruction. My favorite lesson was for my new landscaping class where I had created a scavenger hunt on an online website called Goosechase. I assigned students to teams based on where they lived, whether they had a license, and their typical participation, so there was a nice mixture of the students for them to be successful. They learned about the outdoor room concept in landscaping as it focused on fences, gazebos, landscape flooring, brick work, etc. They had to divide the missions within their group and submit pictures from their yard or on walks around town onto the Goosechase for the missions. It made them actually think about the landscaping features that they see every day but never thought about. After the game, one student said he kept noticing the landscape features were everywhere. He doesn't take them for granted anymore. For my middle school foods class (Food, Friends, and Fun in Ag), they have been making things at home to eat for breakfast, lunch, supper, or dessert. It is important that when choosing assignments for them to do, to make them relative, practical, and useful to life. 

WAGN: How do you stay positive in the face of challenging times? 
Natalie: There have definitely been ups and downs during distance learning, but it's important to know that everyone has their own story of challenges and successes. I really love my job, so it is hard not to be physically in class with my students sharing smiles, laughter, and stories. But I take pride in planning tasks for them to do each week that are practical and may be fun to do. It's important to keep humor and positivity with your students...today I sent funny landscaping memes to a student who's having a tough time. I feel that humor and kindness are great ways to fight negative feelings. My own kids definitely bring many laughs and smiles. My 9-year-old daughter has been such a big help, and she is growing wiser beyond her years and says the funniest things some days. My 18-month-old son's vocabulary is increasing every day and that has been fun, too.

WAGN: Is there anything else you'd like to share? 
Natalie: I'm so thankful that I have such wonderful students, parents, administration, coworkers, and community members to work with in Paynesville. The positive communication and appreciation that happens every day is so helpful. Strong relationships now build a stronger community and future.

Thanks Natalie for sharing your time with the Women in Ag Network. To learn more about WAGN visit z.umn.edu/WAGN.

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