Owen Withee Ag teacher receives Herb Kohl Fellowship

Wisconsin State Farmer
Ag education is flourishing in the Owen-Withee school district including in the lunchroom. Working with Heartland Cooperative and Omega Valley Farmers, students raise chicken with heart-healthy levels of Omega3 fatty acids. The animals are raised in the school’s courtyard for the district’s school lunch program.

OWEN - Travis Engel had a mission when he left high school — he would return one day and provide students at his alma mater with the opportunity to take agriculture education classes.

Engel who graduated from Owen-Withee High School in 2004 made good on his word. With the help of a core group of ag supporters in the community, Engel was a key player in helping to re-establish the long dormant ag education program. He also helped to re-charter the FFA program that had been inactive for nearly two decades.

Travis Engel

"I was one of the affected students that didn’t have Ag Ed available for me here at O-W. Luckily, I was able to open enroll to Abbotsford for some classes as an upperclassmen," Engel said. "Those classes with Mr. John Slipek, along with the Tech Ed classes we had in Owen drew me towards entering the profession. I had goals of eventually returning...and making things right."


Today the school's ag program and FFA are thriving under Engel's direction. The Owen-Withee graduate is proud of the accomplishments of this students, some of whom have earned their State and American FFA Degrees, Proficiency award recipients and a Star Farmer finalist. Others have participated in the Wisconsin FFA Honors Band & Chorus.

Engel has also been recognized as a recipient of the Herb Kohl Fellowship. He is among the 100 teachers in the state selected to receive the honor, and one of nearly 40 ag education instructors to have earned this distinction since the program originated.

"Being named a Kohl Fellowship recipient is an incredible honor. I have put a lot of time, effort and devotion into making the Ag-Tech program what it is today," Engel said. "To be nominated by the Owen-Withee District and selected as a recipient among hundreds of applicants will always be a highlight of my career."

Sharing the credit

Engel is quick to share the credit of the program's success with his mentors and community members. As he neared the culmination of his collegiate career at UW-River Falls and UW-Stout, back home the foundation was being laid to rebuild the program.

Hired to teach Tech-Ag education, Travis Engel works to establish partnerships between the school and community. The Owen-Withee construction class concludes with a full size shed project – this year’s being sponsored by Forward Financial Bank.

"The Owen-Withee community was engaged in strategic planning sessions, and one of the community’s desires was bringing back Ag Ed and FFA. When Scott Zoromski, my Tech Ed mentor, retired, the district opened up an Ag-Tech position and brought me in," Engel said. "A core group of FFA Alumni from the district's initial program had banded together for those years and were instrumental in working behind the scenes my first year to get FFA and Ag Ed back to the forefront of our district’s highlights."

Today, the FFA Chapter is thriving with over 120 members hailing from many differing backgrounds.

Owen-Withee students have many unique opportunities within Travis Engel’s Natural Resources class. Students learn about forestry within the district’s three school forests and also monitor wildlife populations with game cameras sponsored by the DNR’s Snapshot Wisconsin program. The Owen-Withee FFA is also working on developing one of the forests into a modern maple syrup operation. Students also use their talents to preserve wildlife during a taxidermy unit.

"Some still live on the farm, but a bulk either live in town or in the country on a small plot of land," Engel said. "Our members SAE projects include dairy production, fruit production, and diversified livestock, but we also have members that work for welding shops, the local grocery store, or earn money pushing snow, and showing at the fair."

Engel says the program is enriched for younger members due to the strong leadership of the upperclassmen.

"This has led to good participation rates with our junior high and underclassmen," Engel said, adding the the group recently finished a restoration project on a 1948 Farmall M, which will be raffled off this summer.

Leadership shown by upper classmen in the Ag-Tech classes is helping to lay the strong foundation for younger students as well building enthusiasm for the program. Here Junior High Ag-Tech: students sample a variety of disciplines in the course including building bird feeders in woodworking.

Three members from the up and coming chapter will be heading to the Washington Leadership Conference this summer, and another will be running for State Officer position in Section VII this June at the Wisconsin FFA Convention.

More in store

The possibilities for community outreach projects are endless with this enthusiastic group. Engel said FFA members are in the process of hosting a blood drive at the school — an activity that hasn't been done in a number of years.

"We are also working on developing one of our school forests into a modern maple syrup operation which will feature the newest technologies of the industry," he said. "And we’re also pleased to partner with Tractors for Autism & Disabilities, a group that sells, restores and raffles antique tractors to benefit those in need. We will be restoring a Minneapolis Moline 4-Star with them."

The small community in Clark County would agree with Engel that things are going well in the Owen-Withee Ag-Tech program.

"We have much more work to do and more opportunities to succeed ahead of us," Engel said.

Fellowship winners

Each of the teachers and their schools will receive $3,000 as a part of the recognition. The Herb Kohl Fellowship program is co-sponsored by the Wisconsin Newspaper Association, Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, Wisconsin Council of Religious and Independent Schools, Cooperative Educational Service Agencies, Association of Wisconsin School Administrators, and Herb Kohl Foundation.