Sauk Prairie horticulture center to honor the late Jeff Hicken's memory and mission

Colleen Kottke
Wisconsin State Farmer
The Sauk Prairie School District and the Sauk Prairie FFA Alumni & Supporters are teaming up to raise $125,000 to build the Jeff Hicken Horticultural Learning Center. Hicken, who unexpectedly passed away last summer at the age of 47, first began his professional career teaching ag education in Sauk Prairie.

In the seven months since Jeff Hicken passed away unexpectedly, BJ Chrisler has been dealing with grief and searching his heart for a way to honor the legacy of his former Sauk Prairie High School ag teacher, FFA advisor, friend and mentor.

"(The act of) 'doing' is a cornerstone of my healing journey," Chrisler said. "There's no way I can bring back (Hicken) or make this loss any easier for his family and friends. However, what I can do is find a way to continue to impact students' lives in a positive way, just like he did for years."

Last month, Chrisler presented the plan that he and current ag teacher Troy Talford have been outlining for the state-of-the-art Jeff Hicken Horticultural Learning Center in front of the crowd attending the Sauk Prairie FFA Alumni and Supporters annual meeting.

"I think I caught people off guard. We have all been discussing what we can do to celebrate (Hicken's) legacy here in Sauk Prairie and this idea felt like a perfect fit for everyone," Chrisler said.

The Horticultural Learning Center would help to prepare students for careers in the agricultural industry by promoting inquiry-based STEM learning through a hands-on, student-centered, career-focused and technology-integrated curriculum.

Jeff Hicken

Chrisler said the facility is not a memorial to Hicken but rather a place where learning happens.

"When he first came to Sauk Prairie, he was dealt some rough cards with a program that needed restructuring," Chrisler said. "He understood the needs of the modern agricultural education classroom and during his time here, he always found ways to grow, improve and modernize the program."

Hicken himself played a pivotal role in bringing the first modern, automated greenhouse to the Sauk Prairie School District. After its completion, Hicken  accepted a position with the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction as the Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources Education Consultant and State FFA Advisor.

Although he was never able to formally educate students in that first greenhouse, Chrisler said it was Hicken's vision that helped the agricultural program flourish in the school along the Wisconsin River.

After the program outgrew the current greenhouse, Chrisler says Hicken often came to mind as the new space was being designed.

"This educational space will be able to serve all students, just as agriculture provides support for everyone in a different way," Chrisler said.

BJ Chrisler

The Horticultural Learning Center is designed to be ADA accessible, contain 12 growing benches along with classroom instruction space. Other features include: fully automated systems, Farm to Table vegetable production, customizable LED plant lighting, reverse osmosis watering system, mobile planting boxes, energy efficient added space for instruction.

To make Jeff Hicken's vision for continual progression in ag education possible, the Sauk Prairie School District and the Sauk Prairie FFA Alumni & Supporters are teaming up to raise $125,000 for the project.

"Financially, I would consider this effort a true success if we are able to reach $125,000. This amount would provide the needed funds for the space and also allow us to create an endowment for future improvements and repairs to the space," Chrisler said.

The public will have an opportunity to support that endeavor at two upcoming events that will be held at the Sauk Prairie Alumni & Supporters Park, 998 15th St., Prairie du Sac. On April 22, beginning at 6:30 p.m. attendees will have the opportunity to win designer purses during Designer Bag Bingo. The event will also feature a 50/50 raffle, bucket raffle and more. 

The second event will feature Flex and Fingers Dueling Pianos. Gates open at 5:30 p.m. with the show beginning at 7 p.m. Chrisler notes that space is limited at each event and encourages early ticket sales.

"My ultimate goal in all this is to start a conversation. I want to hear the stories and memories about Jeff Hicken. I want to hear the ways he made people laugh and how he motivated others to grow," Chrisler said. "I also want to hear about how educators in general impact countless lives while they go about their normal duties as a teacher."

For more information or to order tickets, visit https://saukprairieffa.com/donate/  Donations can be made payable to: Sauk Prairie School District. Mail to: Jeff Hicken Horticultural Learning Center Fund, P.O. Box 41, Sauk City, WI 53583-0041.