FFA experiences changed by coronavirus pandemic

Jan Shepel
FFA members join in the fun prior to the opening of an evening session at last year's Wisconsin FFA Convention in Madison. While this year's event is postponed, the state officer team is putting together an online experience that will take place during the originally scheduled convention dates in June where they plan to celebrate and recognize the accomplishments of our members and award winners, said state officer team president Collin Weltzien.

The agricultural experience for FFA members this year has been “like no other,” says one member. Most of the experiences they expected to have this year have been cancelled and it has left a void in what they had geared up for as they entered the school year that is just winding down. They are also entering the summer which is fundamentally changed for them with closures of the Wisconsin State Fair some of their county and local fairs.

“We are trying to make the best of it,” says Serena Freriks, president of the Waupun FFA chapter, “but everything is so different.” She was supposed to gradate this year and there very likely will be no ceremony with her graduating classmates.

There was talk of having some sort of commencement exercise in the summer or possibly in the fall but it certainly wouldn’t be the same as what they all thought it was going to be. Her classes just finished on Friday and some of them were difficult to complete online – like AP chemistry. “It was hard to adjust,” she said.

As her chapter tackled some extraordinary substitute events in their school district’s communities in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, it was hard for the students to be left out of the hands-on participation in those events. “We did video chats and zoom calls to hold meetings and plan some of these things but it was a little bit frustrating to not be a bigger part of it because these were things being done for and from our chapter.”

Sign of the times

One of her advisors, Tari Costello, explains that when the effects of the pandemic began to hit the dairy industry, with milk dumping and rock-bottom milk prices, the chapter purchased and distributed 300 “Support Dairy” signs. Then, realizing that all of agriculture was hurting with the effects of the pandemic, and because they got strong community interest, they purchased 360 “Agriculture Strong” signs and sold each for their $8 cost.

But those signs were just the beginning. Since that time the chapter and its community supporters, including the Waupun FFA Alumni, have branched out into community food giveaways and dairy product support for ongoing school lunch programs.

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“We had originally thought that we’d like to give families with kids on school lunch programs a gallon of milk but then we realized that many of the kids coming to pick up a school lunch get there on bicycles. So that wasn’t going to work,” Costello said.

Instead, they donated the more “bike-friendly” single servings of yogurt and string cheese for kids to take home as part of their lunch. She notes that as the effects of the pandemic intensified the need for the lunch programs became even more apparent because more families were hit with unemployment. “The people doing the school lunch programs have been very appreciative of what we’re doing.”

But in addition to those dairy staples added to school lunches, the FFA and Alumni chapters have also done Friday food giveaways in several district communities. “If it’s Friday and you see a lot of cars it’s probably because of our food giveaways,” she said. “It has exploded. It has taken on a life of its own.” The giveaways have been done at Tractor Supply in Waupun and at Tony’s Pizza.

For six weeks now, the Waupun FFA and Alumni have teamed up with area businesses and individual donors to help supply the surrounding community with agricultural products during the Ag Products Giveaway. From gallons of milk to cheese curds and sausage to most recently 1300 pizzas donated by Leroy Meats and Catering, Eden Meat Market, Park Plaza Pizza and Tony's Pizza.

Volunteers from the alumni group and from the school have given away an amazing amount of product in the last six weeks and are now on Week 7 when they will be giving away 1,000 pints of Culver’s frozen custard. They have given away 1,200 gallons of milk – twice – as well as 2,000 pounds of cheese curds and sausage, 2,000 pounds of fresh mozzarella and all of that was in addition to their donations to the school lunches.

“We did this because of COVID and because of its effect on dairy and agriculture. We wanted to move product. We worked on fundraising all year and because the FFA State Convention is cancelled and kids can’t go to Madison, this is what we decided to do,” Costello said. “It has grown into something beyond what we had expected to do.”

Big community event

Because her students were not allowed to physically participate in the food giveaways or to congregate in groups, they have been frustrated. It’s a big thing going on in the community, and they can’t be there, even though they are at the heart of it, she said. Also, students have been pretty busy adjusting to online classes and it was a tough adjustment for many of them.

Because students are not allowed to help, these giveaways have been limited really only by the people who are available to help. Costello said organizers have tapped the human resource of alumni members, school staffers and other community members they have worked with before. Her school has five different teachers who instruct agriculture classes.

Many of their alumni members are farming so they have been busy with all the tasks involved on their farms, but the technical education staff and ag educators have stepped up, sometimes recruiting their spouses to help with the giveaways. “All have played key roles,” said Costello, who has been the de facto organizer of the events.

“The students are wishing they could be part of it because they are proud of what we’re doing.”

Some of the products in the food giveaways have been donated and some have been purchased but Costello said they have not actively asked for donations since so many people and businesses are having a rough time during this pandemic.

Typically when cars roll through their food giveaways, people will offer them donations of cash to show their appreciation and that has helped fund the next week’s giveaway. “The reaction has been very positive,” she said. “The reaction has been very, very heartwarming when people come through.”

Most weeks those donations total $500 which allows them to keep going for the next week. By Costello’s guess, they have already given away well over $30,000 worth of food products to the communities – and that’s on top of the school lunch donations.

In addition to the milk and cheese products, the group has also given away 1,300 frozen pizzas – all made locally. There were easily 70 cars in line for those pizza giveaways, she said.

Support for the giveaways has been strong and Costello said they wouldn’t have been able to do them without support from LeRoy Meat Market, Tony’s Pizza, Brandon Meats and Eden Meat Market. The purveyors allowed the chapter to use refrigerated storage to keep food products in. and some of them produced the food for giveaways.

“Our philosophy has been that we can sit and cry about all the things we can’t do or we can figure out a way to do something and that’s what we’ve done. But it is very, very different.”

Two extremes

At the Waunakee FFA Chapter, advisor Rhonda Knapp, who is one of three advisors for her chapter, said her students are at two extremes – they are either working full-time hours at their jobs or they are bored out of their minds stuck at home.

One of her students is manager at a dog day care business in Waunakee and the business decided to limit the number of employees coming in each day so he is working more hours than ever. Others have jobs on farms and before they may have milked cows only in the morning they may now be doing extra shifts or adding calf chores or field work to their duties.

Like other chapters Waunakee did a virtual FFA awards ceremony via Facebook with pictures and posts that rolled out each day. They did degree recipients and staff recognition and then added all the information to their website for alumni members or others who don’t see Facebook.

“Some of our students had a hard time focusing on school once classes went virtual because they are very social people and they need that interaction with other people,” she said.

Waunakee Schools added a middle school program for agriculture last fall so that group of seventh graders had their first experience with FFA cut short.

Knapp said their process for getting students signed up for officer applications for next year got cut short too. They ended up with three applicants for officer slots next year and one wasn’t old enough, so their chapter will start next year with two officers in place. “It’s hard to rally the troops when we aren’t together.”

One of the big projects with the Waunakee chapter is a plant sale in the spring. They use their own state-of-the-art greenhouse to raise plants to sell to the public. “The students really enjoy taking care of the plants and selling them all and they missed out on that this year.” A community member took over the greenhouse work and then community members placed online orders for the plants. There was a drive-through pickup when the time came.

“All the plants found a home,” she said.

Tough on students

At Dodgeland High School, FFA advisor Lucas Van Egtern said this spring has been very different for his students as school shut down and then the FFA State Convention was cancelled.

He recalls walking into the school right after the shutdown was announced in March and running into two of his officers who are brothers – one is the chapter president. They were there to empty their lockers. “My chapter president said ‘this might be the last time I walk these halls.’ At the time we weren’t sure if it would be. It has been tough on the kids,” said Van Egtern.

Dodgeland made WiFi hot spots available to students to facilitate their use of school i-pads at home for distance learning, but teaching and learning from a distance had its own learning curve.

“Instead of sitting with or standing in front of a class and letting them ask questions, I had to record video lectures. I admit I struggled with it. It changed the face of education,” he said.

The state’s agricultural education programs are made up of several parts: Classroom instruction – which changed significantly this year – which includes FFA and Supervised Agricultural Experience (SAE). The idea is that students with an  SAE learn by doing. With help from their agricultural teachers, students develop their SAE project fitting into one or more categories. It is those projects that allow FFA members to earn awards, often taking them from their local chapter to the State Convention.

Van Egtern said this year’s disruption also changed how the chapter members did their normal things like awards ceremonies and educational programs for young students in the district.

The Dodgeland FFA Chapter, as with other schools, had to cancel its annual awards banquet. As a substitute, they put together a virtual experience “banquet” that was just published online last weekend. Officers recorded their messages as part of it and alumni members gave out scholarships. Luckily, says Van Agtern, his chapter had already elected its new officer team, so they were able to be announced and introduced via that virtual ceremony.

For many FFA chapters the spring Day on the Farm event is a time when they are able to share their knowledge of agriculture with young school children throughout the district.

Virtual day on the farm

The chapter also put together a virtual day on the farm, which is accessible online to all of the district’s kindergarten through 12th-grade students. “We used Flip-grid and our FFA member videotaped themselves demonstrating something to do with agriculture and then the other students were able to look at them all at their leisure.

“It wasn’t the same as being on a farm in person, but doing it this way did open the door for things that we couldn’t show at an in-person day on the farm – like one of my students demonstrating the tapping of a maple tree,” Van Egtern said. “She wouldn’t have been able to demonstrate that at most in-person farm events.”

That virtual farm tour has already gotten 1,200 views and that indicates to him that it has been well-received.

Each year hundreds of FFA members gather in Madison for the annual state FFA convention where they recognized in front of their peers for state degrees and proficiency awards. The coronavirus has changed all that.

Losing out on the state convention has been tough on his members, he said, as several chapter members were going to be recognized on stage in Madison for state degrees and proficiency awards and now they will lose out on that.

Current Wisconsin state officer team president Collin Weltzien says many were disappointed to learn of the postponement of our 91st Wisconsin FFA State Convention.

"Over the past few weeks, we have been begun preparations for an online experience that will take place during the originally scheduled convention dates in June where we plan to celebrate and recognize the accomplishments of our members and award winners" Weltzien said. "We remain optimistic about the possibility of scheduling an in-person event sometime in August to top off the celebration and maintain the incomparable atmosphere and comradery State Convention is known for." 

In addition, many of his students had plans to show livestock at the Dodge County Fair this summer. “I had discussions with my students and they were wondering ‘Does it pay for me to buy market hogs?’ or ‘Should I even begin working with my dairy heifers?’ It’s not easy for many of them to do since market hogs and other meat animals cost money,” he said.

So far, he adds, the fair is still planning to hold some sort of experience for the kids and all of his students who had planned to do livestock projects are still going ahead with them.

Serena Freriks, chapter president for Waupun FFA, has the pigs and is working with them now. She just hopes she gets to show them this summer.

Serena Freriks, the chapter president for Waupun FFA, said students in her chapter have the option to show at either the Dodge County or Fond du Lac County Fair and she has always showed her market hogs at the Alto Fair. She has the pigs and is working with them now. She just hopes she gets to show them this summer.