A Princeton High School teacher whose classroom often contains a collection of stuffed wild birds and critters hanging from the ceiling or on mounts, has been named the outstanding agricultural educator of the year for the 22-school Minnesota Region 4.
Jessica Lupkes is in her 15th year of teaching agriculture-related courses at PHS and adviser of the school’s FFA chapter. (FFA used to stand for Future Farmers of America but the name was dropped in 1988 to remove the stigma that members would become farmers.) FFA members have many ag-related occupations to consider, including ag teaching, which is in demand now in Minnesota, Lupkes said.
Al Stemper, a longtime ag instructor at Foley High School, was one of the region’s instructors who nominated Lupkes for the ag educator honor. Lupkes has done a good job and has a strong teaching program that is involved with the community and not confined to the classroom, Stemper said.
Lupkes grew up on a crop and hog farm in Morris, a small town with a University of Minnesota campus surrounded by crop and livestock farms. Lupkes said she and her three sisters worked hard on the farm, “picking rocks and working in the pig barn,” as well as clearing out junk at old farmsteads when her father wanted to expand the tillable ground on his 1,200 acres.
Lupkes was also an active member of the Horton Riverside 4-H club at Morris and sometimes showed sheep and hogs at the state fair. Besides the animal 4-H projects, she was enrolled in clothes-you-make and baking projects.
She earned her teaching degree at North Dakota State University and then started her teaching career at PHS. She takes pride in saying, “I’m here to stay,” referring to the area. She and her husband Jason live on 5 acres in rural Pease and have 10-year-old twins (a boy and a girl) and 6- and 2-year-old boys.
Lupkes at one time considered a career as a University of Minnesota Extension educator. But she decided on school teaching because she would have more daily contact with students and could get to know them well. Teaching is “exciting” with its always changing daily work, she said.
As for her home in the country, Lupkes said she wishes it had a livestock barn with a variety of animals. For now the Lupkes home just has some rabbits and house pets. The Lupkes also maintain a garden, with Jason handling most of that, while she is taking care of the children, she said.
Agriculture is the basis of a lot of what their family does, Lupkes said, mentioning that their son Henry received a reserve champion on his pheasant taxidermy project at last year’s Mille Lacs County Fair.
School’s FFA chapter
The PHS FFA chapter, besides giving students the chance to enter ag-proficiency competitions in the region and possibly advance to the annual state FFA meet, is involved in the Princeton community.
The FFA chapter runs a FFA barnyard containing mostly smaller farm animals at the Mille Lacs County Fair, and it works with the Farm Bureau to teach farm safety at the fair, using a miniature farm layout.
Each spring the FFA chapter also sets up a farm safety fair next to the high school and teaches safety around motorized equipment. Children from the adjacent South Elementary attend and also get to see a display of animals such as calves, goats and sheep.
The FFA chapter runs a corn drive in the fall, collecting money or corn to sell from farmers as a fundraiser for Camp Courage. Lupkes’ ag students also assist the garden club at North Elementary.
The PHS ag department stepped up its horticulture instruction when it had a greenhouse built on the PHS campus in 2001. The chapter runs a plant sale there each spring.
Lupkes’ horticulture class is very popular, as is her taxidermy class. Lupkes calls the flower arranging that is taught in horticulture a form of art in which students can show creativity, learn a lifelong hobby and possibly use as a springboard into a career. She knows of former students who have worked at greenhouses and floral shops to earn money for college.
It’s clear her taxidermy course is popular; around the classroom are a raccoon, four owls, a hawk, many ducks and pheasants, the front part of a gray fox, and one bobcat. The owls would not be allowed if it were not a classroom because of the laws restricting where they can be, she noted. The DNR donated the owls, Lupkes said. The bobcat was found dead in Sauk Rapids and donated.
Lupkes noted that her students, while learning things that could lead to a career, also gain leadership, practice life skills such as gardening and may come to appreciate nature more, she said.
Lupkes’ students have also started to get acquainted with the district’s school forest. Located on tax forfeited land in rural Princeton, it has a mixture of hardwoods and white pine and other evergreens. The students will be working with government agencies to check the age and quality of the trees and formulate a plan to do something more with the forest, Lupkes said.
PHS junior Jake Hansen, who is taking the advanced wildlife course and is making a couple of fishing rods as part of it, said he likes taking ag courses and being in FFA because he gets to be with friends with like interests.
“There is a lot to learn if you like animals,” he added.
Advancing to state
Lupkes received her Region 4 ag educator honor during the Minnesota Association of Agricultural Educators 2014 Agriculture Technology Conference Jan. 17 and 18 in St. Cloud. Now she will compete against the winners from the other seven regions for the state title.