City girl Candie Lehto named Outstanding National FFA Alumni

Dan Hansen
The Wisconsin FFA Alumni presented Candie Lehto with the Outstanding Achievement Award in 2020, receiving a national nomination.

Wisconsin is nationally recognized for its strong, service oriented FFA chapters. One of the reasons for that success is the support and encouragement provided by FFA Alumni members.

One of the most active and effective of those leaders is Candie Lehto, a lifetime member of the Oconto Falls FFA Alumni Chapter, who was one of three from around the nation to be honored as National FFA Alumni and Supporters during the recent 93rd National FFA Convention & Expo.

Lehto was recognized for donating her time, talent and financial resources in support of current FFA members in northeastern Wisconsin and throughout the state.

Non-ag background

Her involvement with FFA began in a non-traditional way. 

“I have always been a city girl. I may have known that our food comes from farms, but not much more,” Lehto acknowledged. “However, when I became involved with the FFA students and alumni, my whole perspective on agriculture changed.”

She came to work in Oconto Falls as the school district’s assistant superintendent and director of instruction, a position from which she has since retired. 

“At the time, Eric Larson was the agriculture instructor and we had some students who were going to be on stage at the National FFA Convention. He said, “‘I need an administrator to be on stage with me, and I think it should be you,’” she recalled.

“Being at the national convention got me so excited about FFA  that I knew I had to be part of it and be active in it,” Lehto said. “He talked me into joining the FFA alumni and I thought it was important to help the kids succeed in FFA.”

Candie Lehto mans the sandwich stand at a local grocery store, raising funds for the FFA Chapter.

Wide-ranging involvement

Lehto’s commitment to FFA has led her to become involved in numerous projects and activities. She has helped manage several chapter fundraisers, including a sandwich stand at the local grocery store and concession stand at the local “Music on the River” events. 

She has also organized banquet auction fundraisers for 130 alumni and supporters chapters as the section 8 Wisconsin representative to the state council. These banquets raise up to $8,000 annually for student scholarships to the Washington Leadership Conference.

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In addition, Lehto has served on the Wisconsin policy/handbook and program development committees. As a part of the program development committee, she has presented workshops at the Wisconsin FFA Alumni and Supporters Convention and eight alumni and supporter training programs. 

She has also served as a national level judge for employment skills, prepared speaking and nursery landscaping competition. In appreciation of her dedication, Lehto has received the Oconto Falls Honorary FFA Chapter Degree and the Wisconsin FFA Honorary State Degree.

An FFA member participates in a Career Development event in which Candie Lehto served as a judge.

Coaching students

Over the years, Lehto has worked with students, helping them prepare for competitions. “Watching them grow and seeing them develop composure and confidence never ceases to amaze me, and that gives me confidence in the future of our agriculture leaders,” she said.

“What I like is that we have a curriculum at Oconto Falls that not only features production agriculture but also includes ag business, entrepreneurship, hydroponics, and other cutting-edge activities that really makes the kids enthusiastic because they feel they’re on the cutting edge as well,” she related.

“I see enthusiasm among our students for non production agriculture because we have fewer kids involved in production agriculture today. So we have to make sure we keep them interested in other aspects of it,” Lehto stressed. “I see enthusiasm here for prepared speaking, and I’ve worked with kids and coached them, and they’ve had good success.”

She’s seen how FFA and agriculture classes can build confidence and help students who may be bored in other classes.

Recruiting new members

“I’ve had parents come up to me in my position at work and ask what kind of gifted and talent programs we have because their kids weren’t being challenged,” Lehto recalled. “I recommended that they become involved in FFA classes plus SAEs (supervised agricultural experiences) because I think that’s one of the greatest gifted and talented programs that a school can offer. It’s the arts, entrepreneurship, business, academics and more.”

Candie Lehto, left, of the Oconto Falls FFA participated in an FFA Alumni National Leadership Development Conference in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Lehto also has gotten her sister and granddaughter involved in FFA. “My sister is an annual continuing member of the FFA alumni because I hauled her to one of the national conventions and she became so enthusiastic that she joined.” she said.

“I wanted my granddaughter to join the FFA program at her school in Monroe, but she wasn’t sure it would be right for her,” Lehto said. “So I took my daughter and granddaughter to the state convention last year, and a day later my granddaughter decided to join FFA and take ag classes, and she has been involved in 7th and 8th grade FFA, and loves those ag classes. FFA definitely won her over.

“That's a great example of how experiencing FFA just one time can make a big difference in your life,” Lehto emphasized.

When she’s not working on FFA alumni projects or helping students prepare for competitions, Lehto enjoys a variety of hobbies, including sewing and quilting, crocheting, traveling, and visiting her grandkids. “I also enjoy gardening, even though I have a brown thumb and keep the landscaping businesses busy.”

The National FFA Organization is a school-based national youth leadership development organization of more than 760,000 student members as part of 8,700 local FFA chapters in all 50 states, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. National FFA Alumni & Supporters have more than 637,800 members and 2,466 chapters.

Dan Hansen is a correspondent for the Wisconsin State Farmer