After a year hiatus, FFA members ready for in-person convention this summer

Colleen Kottke
Wisconsin State Farmer
Putting their disappointment aside, the 2019-20 Wisconsin FFA Officer Team produced a virtual state convention last summer due to the coronavirus pandemic.

For 90 years, FFA members joined together each summer at the Wisconsin FFA Convention, first at the American Baptist Assembly Grounds in Green Lake to more recently the Alliant Energy Center in Madison.

The coming together was multi-faceted: to celebrate the achievements of one another; network and forge new friendships among their peers and to share the message of leadership and embody service to others.

But the global COVID-19 pandemic put the brakes on the 91st in-person gathering, much to the dismay of FFA members across the country.

"When this whole thing started in March of 2020 and things began to shut down, I could sense the disappointment of the state FFA officer team," said Cheryl Zimmerman, Wisconsin FFA executive director. "They wanted us to hold out as long as we could before we said we couldn't have an in-person event. We tried and did the best we could until we had to make that decision."

When it became clear that an in-person convention was out of the question, the 2019-2020 state officer team did a 180.

One of Cheryl Zimmerman's duties as the Wisconsin FFA executive director is to work closely with the Wisconsin FFA Officer team who help plan the annual convention.

"I think once that decision was made, they knew what they had to do," Zimmerman said.

The state FFA Convention runs typically from Monday through Thursday and is jam-packed with activities, breakout sessions, tours, community service projects, competitions and social events. Faced with an unprecedented situation, Zimmerman said the team had to put together an event to celebrate with Wisconsin's 250 chapters – with over 20,000 members – virtually.

"Our officer team, along with the AV staff headed to a small studio in Madison where we had to record results, retiring addresses and deliver it online," Zimmerman said. "My son helped post everything online. He got very little sleep the week of the convention."

Zimmerman says Wisconsin was not alone. Other states across the country presented conventions in online formats, including the National Convention last fall.

"Who would have thought a state convention, let alone a national convention, would not happen in person," Zimmerman said. "These kids knew they had to make the best of the situation and they put forth such a great effort, I told them they'll go down in history as the team putting together a convention like no other."

Fast forward a year

Wisconsin officer team President Joe Schlies and his fellow 2020-21 officers also missed out on the opportunity to revel onstage following their selection to the state team. And due to the raging pandemic, they were largely confined to producing leadership presentations online instead of visiting schools all across the state for the better part of their terms.

Wisconsin State FFA President Joe Schlies

"I can confidently say that this past year has changed my perspective of what service looks like for the good," Schlies said. "And while this year of service has not looked the same as many years in history, one of the most rewarding parts has been being able to continuously overcome the next challenge that lies ahead of my team with every event we plan."

Schlies said the restrictions associated with in-person gatherings enabled the FFA association to think of new, creative and meaningful experiences to offer members this year and into the future.

"While we are excited to host an in-person convention this July in Madison, it is only with respect that we remind ourselves how fortunate we are to be together again," Schlies said.

Back to Madison

Earlier this year, Zimmerman says the prospect of an in-person convention this summer was still up in the air due to the amount of coronavirus activity in the state and restrictions regarding large in-person gatherings. Pushing the convention date back to the beginning of July would hopefully buy some time.

"We didn't really know what schools were going to allow and we were hoping that things would start opening up more to give us the best opportunity to have an in-person convention," Zimmerman said.

Back in March, Zimmerman began contacting different facilities to host the large gathering in the event the Alliant Energy Center would remain under tight restrictions.

"I called the Alliant Energy Center and got some very positive news that I wasn't expecting. Things were moving in the right direction so the board made the decision to stay the course in Madison," Zimmerman said. "And with the lifting of restrictions for large in-person gatherings, we'll still be in the facility that we're normally in."

Zimmerman says that the Alliant Energy Center has taken steps to assure the safety of guests including a recent investment to upgrade its air handling system and availability of hand sanitizing stations throughout the building. Masks will be required only if a student's home school district mandates it.

What's different

With a variety of guidelines in place out in the community due to the pandemic, Zimmerman says this year's attendees will not be able to participate in tours or community service projects.

"We will, however, conduct a food drive so that we have some service project this summer," she said.

In a normal year, competitions are spread throughout the week. This year most will take place on Tuesday. Zimmerman says the absence of an early morning session on Wednesday coupled with opening the Expo a little earlier will relieve bottlenecks and provide for more social distancing at check-in points.

Zimmerman says they learned many valuable lessons from last year's virtual convention and will implement some of those strategies including the release of a handful of results online.

"Other than that we're still going to have our sessions, celebration, convention expo, meal functions, recognition of award winners as well as entertainment for our attendees," Zimmerman said. "Hopefully we'll still have that energy and excitement that an FFA convention brings when students come together and celebrate."

What's sure to raise the fervor in the cavernous Exhibition Hall Sure are social media sensations and Kansas farm siblings the Peterson Farm Brothers who will be on tap Tuesday evening as keynote speakers as well as entertainment.

What's sure to raise the fervor in the cavernous Exhibition Hall Sure are social media sensations and Kansas farm siblings the Peterson Farm Brothers. Two of the three brothers will be performing on stage following the third general session. They will also be on hand for a meet and greet with Wisconsin FFA members on Wednesday morning within the convention expo.

The group is well known for their popular agriculturally related song parodies, as well as their dedication to telling the story of American farmers. They have now produced over 20 music videos spoofing well known songs. 

Million Dollar Question

Zimmerman says that the annual convention typically draws around 3500 attendees. However, some schools have communicated that they won't be attending due to the timing of the event while other chapters have increased the number of students heading to Madison.

"The million dollar question right now is how many will be attending," Zimmerman said. "But the state officer team shared with me that no matter the size, be it large or small, they're just ready to have something in person and are ready to celebrate face to face.

"We have a lot of excited people and we've got a lot of of work to do because time is flying and we have a big event to pull off here in order to have a grand celebration," she added.