FFA: Growing leaders one member at a time

Colleen Kottke Associate Editor
Now Media Group


As a caravan of school buses pulled into the farmyard at the Rich and Wanda VanBuren farm, members of the Waupun Area FFA Chapter sprang into action.

Serving as hosts of the 18th annual Day on the Farm event, FFA members escorted children in grades K-4th grade to six member-led educational stations that provided youngsters with a hands-on look at different facets of the agriculture industry. Over 750 students visted the farm during the two-day event.

Ag teacher and FFA Advisor Tari Costello said the majority of the students leading the popular event once participated as grade school children themselves.

'Everyone thinks we do this to educate the elementary kids but they don't realize they're the ones getting the education. When they step into those leadership roles they really blossom,' Costello said. 'When you see them taking the next step — seeing the interaction they have with these kids and the enthusiasm and passion they have when talking about this industry they care so much about, that's really satisfying and one of the reasons why we teach.'

Biggest and Best

The Day on the Farm event is just one of many community service and leadership projects that caught the attention of the judges last year at the Wisconsin FFA Convention. Waupun was named not only the biggest chapter in the state — with over 400 members (nearly half of the student population at Waupun Area Sr. and Jr. High School) — but also the Top Chapter.

'We're quite proud of everything we've done so it was an honor to be named No. 1 in the state,' said Chapter President Abigail Henken. 'I think our success is not only due to the number of activities we do throughout the year, but the diversity of our ag program and the support we receive from the community.'

The Waupun Area School District also has the distinction of being the only district in the state to employ five full-time FFA advisors and as the state's only K-12 agriculture education program including a charter school that boasts a robust ag curriculum.

'When I first started here in Waupun 19 years ago, this was a single person department with 70 members enrolled in FFA. Today we have 408 members in our chapter,' Costello said. 'We have such a wide array of classes and more instructors which helps to attract more students.'

More than just tractors and plows

Robert Woock's family made the decision to open enroll into the Waupun Area School District due to the active ag program.

'Our family has grown closer over the years due to our involvement in the ag program. There's so much more to agriculture than just tractors and plows,' Woock said.

While FFA members study a myriad of subjects pertaining to agriculture, the leave the program with important skill sets.

'FFA has way more to offer than just ag,' said incoming President Dylon Pokorny. 'It teaches you to become a better leader in the community and prepares you for any occupation that you might choose.'

Standing up for Ag

FFA also empowers its members to become AgVocates for their industry, which may include standing up to detractors and setting the record straight.

'There's a lot of misinformation out there about agriculture including GMOs and so forth. A lot of us officers take to Facebook and share information in helping to educate and to set the record straight,' said Tiffany VanBuren.

'Today's youth don't know much about the ag industry. Many of them believe that their food comes from the grocery store and have no knowledge about the story behind their food,' said Logan Pluim. 'It's our job to help educate them about where their food comes from and what the ag industry is all about.'

Costello said her students were surprisingly modest about winning the state's top honor.

'It's almost like now they have to step it up even more to prove themselves that they can continue at this high level,' Costello said. 'But if you talk with these kids about the number of activities and community services projects that they do, it's not for an application or an award. It's because they truly believe in the importance of these things. Often they will come back after graduation and continue that kind of participation as strong community members, and that's what this organization is all about.'