Sparking an interest in agriculture

PROSSER, Wash. – Towering more than 40 feet high and able to hold more than 30,000 gallons of liquid, the enormous wine tanks at Four Feathers Wine Estates were an impressive and a little intimidating sight to area high school students.

Students and tour guide stand on a catwalk about 40 feet above the ground, at the top of giant wine tanks.
Four Feathers Wine Estates winemaker Becca DeKleine leads Spark students through, and above, the winery. Some of their tanks hold up to 32,000 gallons of wine.

The industry tour was part of the latest edition of Spark, a program from the WSU College of Agriculture, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences (CAHNRS). The program takes local high school students, this year from around Prosser, and shows them the wide variety of lucrative career options involved in agriculture. The goal is to spark their interest in pursuing a degree and career in ag.

This year, 25 students, ranging from freshmen to seniors, from Grandview, Mabton and Prosser high schools took part. The students invited to attend the Spark Program were from under-represented backgrounds who had previously stated they weren’t considering higher education beyond high school.

The students spent the morning touring Zirkle Fruit Company and Four Feathers, then visited WSU’s Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center (IAREC) in Prosser. At IAREC, they conducted “simulated” ag-related research with WSU faculty — discovering the science behind agriculture.

“We want to show them that there’s more than just farming when it comes to ag,” said Kari Sampson, assistant director of recruitment and retention for CAHNRS. “The Spark students interacted with accountants, engineers, food scientists, IT professionals and winemakers to name a few. It was an impressive variety.”

On tour

Zirkle and Four Feathers provided tour guides with a wide range of backgrounds and careers. Both companies wanted to let the students know about the options and job opportunities, available to them as high school and college graduates.

The students toured the Zirkle packing plant, where they saw apples go from large storage bins to a cleaning and sorting machine, to being packed into bags and boxes and shipped. Then, they walked over to the winery to learn about the process and science behind making wine. Zirkle provided a full breakfast and lunch for all the SPARK students.

Hundreds of red apples float in a water solution, as a few people look over the edge to watch.
An employee at Zirkle Fruit Company shows Spark students the apple washing station in their packing plant.

“Showing off our world-class facility was great,” said Becca DeKleine, winemaker and assistant general manager at Four Feathers. “But connecting with these students and showing them an industry they may have never thought about before, was the main goal. And I think it was really successful.”

Student perspectives change

That success showed in surveys Sampson and her team asked the students to complete both before and after the program. The ‘after’ results showed that more students were interested in attending college, pursuing a career in agriculture, and were more aware of the various pathways that led to both, Sampson said.

“That’s the point,” Sampson said. “Maybe a few of these students found a new interest that they can pursue in college, no matter where they go. We wanted to open new avenues of opportunity for them, and hopefully that leads some of them to WSU to pursue that interest.

Helping along throughout the day were current CAHNRS student ambassadors, who talked with the high school students about their experiences and how they became interested in agriculture.

“I understand where they’re coming from,” said Sammy Reyes, a WSU junior majoring in resource economics, microbiology and German. “At first, early in high school, I couldn’t see myself going to college. But the more I learned, the more necessary college became. I hope I was able to have an impact on these students and change their lives.”

In addition to WSU staff, Yakima Valley College sent a representative to talk about the value of starting at a two-year community college. Yakima Valley has agreements in place with WSU in several programs that allow students to easily transfer to WSU to earn a four-year degree.

Students on the left lean over a table and scrape on plant leaves while WSU faculty watch and instruct them.
WSU professor Naidu Ryapti, right, and his graduate students show students in the Spark program how to test for viruses in plants.

Hands-on science

In the afternoon, the program moved down the road to the IAREC, where WSU faculty members put the students to work on experiments. They tested plants for viruses, dug through soil samples, and learned about drones and robotics in ag.

“We tried to give them a wide variety of hands-on experiences,” said Joan Davenport, professor in the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences. “We want to show off the real-world benefit to science and research. And I think they saw that, based on the survey results. We’re proud to have been a part of this.”

At the research center, the faculty kept track of which groups of students showed the most interest and had the best results in the experiments. All five students in the winning group received a $500 scholarship to WSU if and when they declare an interest in an ag-related CAHNRS major. Those scholarships were a donation from the McCoy Scholarship Fund. Lynne Willard, trustee of the fund, even participated to learn about the Spark program.

“Having the donation really added to the value of the program,” Sampson said. “We showed these students that people who don’t even know them are invested in their education, their future, and the future of agriculture. Hopefully that will have a lasting impact for everybody who took part.”

Media Contact

Kari Sampson, CAHNRS assistant director of recruitment and retention