FFA: A giant step into the future

John Oncken

The huge lobby of Exposition Hall at the Alliant Energy Center was filled shoulder to shoulder with blue jacketed, black pant/skirt, white shirt/blouse clad high schoolers on their way from one meeting to another down the long hall and I was sort of in the way.

It was the 88th Wisconsin FFA convention and there were some 3400 FFA members plus advisors in the building and I hadn’t attended this big event for 10 years — it was about time!

Blue jackets - 3400 of them.

Yes. I was an FFA member three of my four years in high school and well remember learning how to test milk thus burning lots of holes in my clothing from the sulfuric acid used in the Babcock test, welding farm equipment and judging livestock at a state contest all so long ago. And the not to be forgotten state conventions at the American Baptist Assembly at Green Lake.

My visit wasn’t well-planned, I just wanted to talk to a few people and sort of catch up with one of the great youth organizations of anytime and anywhere.

Some history

In 1917 the Smith Hughes Act established vocational agriculture in public schools and the Wisconsin Association of Future Farmers of America (FFA) was formed in 1929. That was the same year the organization's official colors of National blue and corn gold were adopted and remain unchanged today. In 1933 the blue jacket with the FFA emblem on the back was made the “official dress.” In 1969 women were allowed to become members and in 1988 the official name was changed to The National FFA organization in light of changing farm conditions. And in 1995 the annual convention left Green Lake for a new home in Madison, first at the Civic Center and in 1997 to the Alliant Center.

Forty  years ago Mike Kawleski, of the Stevens Point FFA Chapter , was Wisconsin FFA president.

Forty years ago

One of the first people I met on Thursday of the event was Mike Kawleski who I knew from years gone by when he worked at the WMMB and later at Wisconsin Public Service. “I came down to celebrate the 40th anniversary of my being president of the Wisconsin FFA in 1976 - 77,” he explained.

In contrast to the convention being once held at the un-air conditioned and often sweltering hot hall at Green Lake then, the programs here today are high tech with videos and better staging, he says. “I remember also that there were 44,000 dairy farms in the state then and FFA members were mainly farmers. Now there are what, 9,000 farms in the state? And most FFA members have never lived on a farm.”

Mike also well remembers his vice president was John Arneson of Stoughton, (another mutual friend) who was FFA president in 1978-79.

Although raised on a farm near Stevens Point, Kawleski is now manager of public affairs at the huge Georgia Pacific paper company (bath tissue, napkins, towels) in Green Bay . That’s a far distance from farming but he remembers his days in FFA as a chorus member and officer as high points in his life.

Cheryl Zimmerman, Wisconsin FFA Executive Director, has led FFA membership to a modern record of 20,800.

A modern high

Cheryl Zimmerman of Spencer, now in her 24th year as State FFA Executive Director, heads the FFA Center that provides programming and services for advisors and members including coordinating all state level FFA meetings and the State FFA Convention. She says the state FFA membership is at a 37-year high with 20,800 members and growing. "There were 15,000 members when I started in 1993.” She also explained that private high schools — Lakeside Lutheran at Lake MIlls is one — are now adding agriculture courses and FFA Chapters.

“We are teaching courses covering many agricultural areas beyond production ag that serve as leadership development training for future careers,” she says. “And, yes we continue to have a shortage of ag teachers.

Jeff Agnew in his 28 years at Ft. Atkinson FFA has built a dynasty.

28 years: The Seasoned

Jeff Agnew is completing his 28th year as agricultural teacher and FFA advisor at Fort Atkinson and supervises some 300 FFA members and three advisors in high school and middle school. He explains, “Of those members only about 20 live on farms, that’s a major change we’ve seen as farm numbers go down. Most now live in town or in urban locations."

"The number of male and female students is about equal, that’s another big trend and we’re seeing women assuming many leadership roles on chapter, state levels and all of agriculture," he continues. "But, there is still a big demand for employees throughout agriculture."

In her three years at Southwestern High, FFA Advisor Katy Lynn Heisz is building a solid beginning.

3 years: The New

Katy Lynn Heisz is finishing her third year as ag instructor and FFA advisor at Southwestern High at Hazel Green. “Our FFA Chapter and ag program is only six years old,” she says. "Actually there was a program many years ago that was discontinued so we’re starting over.”

“We are a bit different than most FFA Chapters these days as we're located in a great farming area with many working farms and we have about a 50/50 ration of farm and non-farm students in our high school and middle school FFA. We’re growing and have participated in state leadership activities and initiated a lot of new projects and activities," she said. “One is Trick or Treat, where we dress up in costume (like when we were kids) and ask for donations for the food pantry and like most chapters we sell fruit and vegetables and also create our own packages that include local meat and cheese.“

Heisz was raised on a 40-cow dairy near Richland Center and says: “I was an FFA member and always wanted to be an agricultural teacher. I just love watching city kids hearing about farming in class and watching their lights go on and saying ‘I didn’t know that.’”

“I really love attending this FFA convention and seeing the things other youth have done and talking with other teachers and learning from them.”

The FFA past in photos for all to see.

Big plans

Plans for the future of Southwestern FFA include making the chapter better known in the district and county, Heisz says, “In September we will invite all ag students and their families to a cookout to share our our plans for the year and ask for their suggestions on what they would like, as a community, from our program. We will also attempt to get coverage in newspaper articles as many people in the district don’t yet know the FFA has been re-established. “

A marked contrast; An FFA chapter with years of stability, growth and success led by an advisor (Jeff Agnew) who can see retirement sneaking up and a new chapter with a young advisor (Katy Lynne Heisz) still in her learning stages and working to build a successful, long-term chapter.

Both see the opportunity for youth to develop leadership skills through officer positions, competitions, conferences and gaining public speaking skills and self-esteem by learning within and outside the agricultural classroom.

Every former FFA member I’ve ever met recognizes the the value of the things they were exposed to and learned, and the people they met while in high school and FFA. They prepared for careers whether directly related to agriculture or not, with hands-on learning experiences and real-life situations and doing it while having fun.

What could be better?

John Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications. He can be reached at 608-222-0624, or email him at