Arneson retiring as coordinator of Wisconsin's Ag in the Classroom

Gloria Hafemeister
Darlene Arneson, Wisconsin’s first Ag in the Classroom coordinator, is leaving the job as of this month.  She has served in that position since 2004 when the program was started in Wisconsin. One of the programs she developed is offering tours for students at the Wisconsin State Fair to highlight the many types of agriculture in Wisconsin.

MADISON – With the announcement that Darlene Arneson, coordinator with Wisconsin’s Ag in the Classroom program since 2004, would be stepping away from the position at the end of this year, teachers and Ag education coordinators around the state have expressed their appreciation for her dedication to agriculture and education.

Sheila Everhart, Rock County AITC volunteer summed up Darlene’s efforts to promote agriculture, “Whether you were a volunteer, educator or agribusiness partner, one thing was consistent: Darlene Arneson was your advocate for all things Agricultural Literacy.

"Darlene was available to provide us with knowledge, resources and materials that promoted agricultural literacy for K-12 teachers and students for over 15 years (2004-14 & 2016-21). Darlene traveled throughout Wisconsin and the United States promoting Wisconsin Ag in the Classroom, sharing innovative and creative lessons, creating memories and making lifelong friendships.”

Everhart says Arneson has demonstrated flexibility, a willingness to think outside the box, a “can do” attitude and encouragement for thousands over the last 41 years.

She credits Arneson for helping so many Wisconsinites gain a better understanding of where their food, fiber and fuel come from.

Arneson's last day in her position was December 23.

Prior to serving as the Ag in the Classroom coordinator Darlene taught high school agriculture at Cashton and Cambridge High Schools. After leaving the classroom, she worked part-time off the farm when she and her husband, John, were involved in a dairy partnership. At the time three children were young.

As former agriculture teachers, the Arnesons enjoyed going into schools, hosting farm tours, and offering their farm for various events.

“It was getting hard to juggle the schedule (farming and teaching). I wanted to keep connected to schools and Dane County Farm Bureau didn't have an Ag in the Classroom program at the time, so it was a perfect opportunity to start one,” Arneson said.

Arneson served as secretary for Dane County's Farm Bureau as well as church administrator, and substitute teacher. In addition, she also worked in passenger safety for the Dean Foundation making school visits.

“I developed that program and served on the WFBF Ag in the Classroom Steering Committee when state funding began in the early 2000's, Arneson said. "When an opening for a full-time staff member came open, I applied and was fortunate to serve in that role from 2004 until now with a 2 ½ year break seven years ago.”

One of the highlights of the job for Arneson was the two-day summer bus tours that Wisconsin AITC offers. The tours provide an opportunity for teachers and volunteers to learn more about a variety of agricultural enterprises.

“We visit farms, agri-businesses and help them get a first-hand view of our industry, the jobs they offer, and allowing teachers to interact with our hosts,” she said.

During the tours, Arneson often heard comments from participants: "I have driven by that place hundreds of times and had no idea what they did, the jobs they offer, and their impact on agriculture outside of our area.” Feedback such as this is what Arneson says made the trips worthwhile.

Last year Arneson, second from left, was accompanied by  two teachers and two volunteers to the National Ag in the Classroom Conference in Iowa.  Joining her were Random Lake teacher Cindy Barber, Kimberly teacher Erena Christensen, Brown County Dairy Promotion staff and Green Bay teacher Ashley VandenBush,  Brown County Dairy Promotion staff Jennifer Bartkowski, From left, Cindy and Dave Barber, Arneson, Ashley VandenBush, Jennifer Bartkowski, Jeff and Erena Christensen.

Over the years she has appreciated the farms and agricultural enterprises that hosted the tours. 

“Each year I think we hit the jackpot in some pretty amazing places to visit and the next year just gets better!”

Last year Arneson was excited to accompany two teachers and two volunteers to the National Conference in Iowa.

"It was so much fun to finally have a group attend as we sometimes struggle to get attendees due to costs and travel,” she said, adding that the trip was made possible due to the support of the county Farm Bureau and scholarships from CHS.

“It was just so satisfying to see them soak up all the information, tours, workshops, develop friendships with teachers from other states, and network with each other," she said. "It was truly a remarkable week.”

Arneson says she derives the most gratification from her job when she fields feedback from teachers and volunteers saying the help she provided, or the connection to lessons or resources helped make their job easier.

"There is nothing more satisfying than helping others and I was blessed to have that opportunity to share my passion of agriculture and help educate our future,” she said.

There are currently 61 county Farm Bureau and Ag in the Classroom programs in Wisconsin. Almost all are run by volunteers except in Brown County, Fond du Lac, and Dane County.

As part of her job, Arneson conducts volunteer training, provides resources and helps them develop their county programs. In addition, Arneson works closely with agriculture educators and FFA Advisors in the state saying they are a critical part of the program with Food for America and their assistance in getting into schools.

“We have been fortunate to have some FFA members who have used Agriculture Education as their SAE (Supervised Agriculture Experience) Project and have done Ag in the Classroom as part of it,” she said.

Arneson credits her dad, Jerry Mauer of Verona for her keen interest in not only agriculture but in promoting agriculture.

“I grew up going to schools, 4-H clubs, and hosting farm tours along side of my dad. He loved to tell about agriculture and even after our farm was developed, he went to Verona Schools and spoke with classes. “

Darlene Arneson is leaving the position as Wisconsin’s Ag in the Classroom coordinator, a job she began in 2004.  She credits her dad for her keen interest in promoting agriculture.  The late Jerry Mauer went into classrooms in the school that is built on his former farm near Madison to talk about the  farming industry in the state.

She refers to the irony that the present Chávez Elementary School in the Madison School District was built on the Mauer family farm.

"Our dad used to go into the school and tell how his grandfather came from Germany and started the farm. There is a bench in front of the school in memory of dad,” she said.

Arneson says her dad helped her a great deal especially when she serves as the Dane County AITC coordinator.

"He built a lot of the things we used including two model farm displays, safety displays, puppet show theatres, and more," she said. "He helped me on numerous events, delivered materials, and loved to make classroom presentations," she said.

Arneson notes that Dane County still uses many of the items her dad made.

"It helps our family know that his spirit carries on!”

Teachers like Dana Westedt who is retired and now serves as a volunteer with AITC has learned a great deal about agriculture from Arneson, knowledge they were later able to use in their classroom.

“I think the AITC program won’t be quite the same without her,” Westedt says,

Westedt says she met Arneson when she was a 4th grade teacher and was selected as the Wisconsin AITC Outstanding Teacher in 2009.

"We've worked together on different AITC events since then. She organized a Teacher Bus Tour that my teaching colleague and I participated in one summer, and we had a fabulous time visiting farms, dairy operations, ag businesses, and even the Potosi Brewery," she said. "What we learned from that experience was beneficial and relevant to utilize in our classrooms.”

Using the lure of cream puffs, Westedt says Arneson invited teachers to the Wisconsin State Fair.

"It offered the opportunity to see the many ways agriculture is a prime focus of the Fair.," Westedt said.

"She introduced my colleague and me to the Farm Wisconsin Discovery Center, a place where I've returned twice with grandchildren," she said. "Darlene was an amazing ambassador of agriculture, reaching out in so many different ways to  promote the business of farmers and the important work they do 24/7/365," Westedt said."(Darlene) always had a kind word to share, I never saw her get rattled, and she truly enjoyed the work she was doing.”