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Luke English (30 months) helping his dad, Drew English, in last year's wheat harvest in Rosalia. Luke will be a sixth-generation farmer.
Photo by Ashley English



Forming resonsible adults as an FFA chapter leader

Steve Braun, Liberty High School ag instructor

May 2020
By Kevin Gaffney

Steve Braun was destined to be an ag educator, but he didn’t recognize his calling until he was working his way through college.

Braun was raised in the small agricultural community of Cambridge, Idaho, in a family with several generations of farmers and ranchers. His grandfather, his father and three uncles raised wheat, barley, alfalfa and grass hay and beef cattle on their diversified farm. He was actively involved with the Future Farmers of America (FFA) during his high school years. Their Cambridge chapter was very competitive, and it paid off in a big way in 1989, when they took on a project that was part of the Building Our American Communities, a program to promote volunteerism.

The FFA group designed a plan to place new street signs throughout Cambridge. Their application was accepted, and the city agreed to fund the cost of the new street signs. The group did all the labor of installing the signs throughout town. Their project won the Idaho state award, beating all the larger schools. The award included a paid-in-full trip to Washington, D.C., for their ag instructor and for Braun, the FFA project leader.

“It was an unforgettable experience seeing the sights of our nation’s capital and actually having the opportunity, with our group, to briefly meet with George H.W. Bush, the president of the United States,” recalled Braun.

Another indelible impression was made when the group was taken to an elegant restaurant for dinner with an à la carte menu.

“Thank goodness RJR Nabisco was paying for the trip and the meals,” said Braun. “The Idaho potato was listed on the menu for $22. I couldn’t believe it.”

While Braun was still in high school, the family sold the farm and began a construction business. His father and uncles built several homes, barns and outbuildings on their family properties. Braun added to his farm work knowledge and experience by gaining many construction skills.

“I feel very privileged to have grown up in a family that was so skilled at so many trades,” Braun said. “They were true craftsmen.”

While in high school and during summers in college, Braun worked on farms and in the construction business with his father and other contractors. He also worked at his uncle’s hardware store where he learned valuable customer service skills that helped make him successful in the classroom.

Coming from a family with no four-year college graduates, Braun assumed he would stay in the Cambridge area and have a career in the construction business. Two of his teachers had other ideas about his career path potential, though. His fifth grade teacher and his high school ag instructor both strongly encouraged Braun to attend a university.

“I think everyone has had at least one teacher that motivated them to find their correct career path. I was fortunate enough to have two teachers who really believed in me and helped me gain the confidence I needed to succeed.”

Braun attended the University of Idaho (UofI), earning his degree in ag education. He earned some scholarships, which strengthened his motivation to succeed in his studies. Braun added some extra classes in welding and plant science to round out his degree work.

“My degree is officially in agriculture education and career and technical education, qualifying me to be ag science and technology certified,” explained Braun. “My classes include ag technology, ag leadership, robotics and ag mechanics. These classes encompass instruction in plant science, woodworking, welding, small engines and other subjects.”

While at the UofI, Braun was involved with the collegiate FFA, and they helped sponsor the North Idaho District High School FFA contests. He got to know many of the regional FFA leaders and ag instructors at the area high schools.

Braun had originally planned to move back to the west-central Idaho region where he grew up, but fate stepped in when the ag teacher at nearby Troy, Idaho, was hired to take over as the school principal. Braun applied for the opening, was interviewed and was hired for the position.

“Troy High School is not an impressive new building,” said Braun. “But my principal, Mr. Underdahl, shared his great wisdom. He explained to me that it’s not the building that matters, it’s how the students get instruction. It’s the interaction between the teacher and the students that makes a consequential difference in their lives. That was a lesson I’ve never forgotten.”

The Troy community fit Braun perfectly. He taught there for 20 years, leading numerous FFA teams to Idaho state competitions. Several teams and individuals advanced to compete at the national FFA level.

“FFA is an intracurricular organization for students interested in agriculture and leadership. It is one of the three components of agricultural education. Students must be enrolled in ag education classes to be a member of the FFA. They receive classroom instruction to develop competence in conducting research, the capacity for public speaking and other proficiencies. This prepares them for the second component, which entails personal growth and leadership development in FFA programs. Finally, they participate in service or work-based learning to implement everything they have learned.

“We want them to be able to use the skills developed in FFA later in life for employable skills and also for critical thinking abilities they will need.

“My bottom line is that I want them to become good people and productive adults. I want them to care about themselves and care about their neighbors and to invest that care into their community.”

The time to make a move from Troy came when state legislation complicated school levy scheduling, and Braun’s contract was in jeopardy. He made some discreet inquiries and received several offers, including one from Liberty High School (LHS) near Spangle, Wash.

“My wife and I were invited to stop by Liberty on a Saturday, just to look it over and visit,” remembered Braun. “We were very impressed by the principal, the superintendent and the overall facilities. To my surprise, before we left there that day, I was offered the position.”

Braun joined the LHS staff in 2015. They have since built their home on some property between Spangle and Fairfield. He and his wife, Mandi, have three sons, Broc, Bryce and Blake.

More than 80 students are participating in Braun’s ag education program, nearly half of the entire LHS student body of about 165 students. Braun said that one of the greatest rewards of his work is seeing a new freshman come in who can’t put two sentences together in front of a group of his fellow students at the start of the year, then being able to effectively deliver a speech and calmly respond to difficult questions by the end of the school year.

“Having a good ag program doesn’t mean much without a supportive school administration and local community,” noted Braun. “I have been blessed to have had that kind of support in Troy and now here at Liberty.”

Over the years, Braun has had many teams and individuals win state competitions. He has also led teams and individuals to compete in the national FFA competitions.

In 2019, LHS had 41 students participate at state FFA competitions, either as part of a team or as individuals. They had 18 students show animals at the Junior Livestock Show in Spokane last year.

One complaint Braun has about his work is the excessive amount of paperwork required of teachers. He spends nearly half of each day simply filling out paperwork required by either state or federal regulations and guidelines.

“It is counterproductive. Time spent on paperwork is time not spent with my students. It has become ridiculous,” he said.

“I am an ag teacher by choice, not by chance,” is a career motto for Braun.

“I want to provide the students with an experience they can grow from,” noted Braun. “To be competitive in life, you have to be willing to get invested and to put in the hard work that is necessary to accomplish your goals. I feel tremendously blessed that I have been provided with the opportunity to teach the students of the Liberty School District and to work in such a supportive community.”