FFA Convention: A sea of blue

John Oncken
A rolling sea of blue.

One moment the huge lobby of the Exhibition building at the Alliant Energy Center in Madison was nearly empty, only a few people sitting at tables or looking at exhibits.  All of the sudden the long, wide space is teeming with young people (FFA'ers) making their way from one major session to the next, all dressed in the blue corduroy FFA jackets, black pants or skirts, white shirts and blouses. It’s the tide coming in or going out depending on where one is standing. 

The sea of blue is made up of the 3500 (about) high school and college FFA members, advisors and guests from some 250 high schools and a few colleges and universities attending the 89th annual FFA convention. 

Annual Wisconsin FFA Convention - the 89th.

The Ag remains

No, FFA no longer means Future Farmers of America. That ended in 1988 as farming conditions changed and actual farming was no longer a viable possibility for most young people enrolled in agriculture-based high school courses. However, the interest in studying agriculture (or agriscience) remained as did the name Wisconsin Association of FFA.

Long rows of chapter exhibits were changed several times.

The Wisconsin Association of FFA is a part of the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction with the organization’s headquarters located in Spencer with Cheryl Zimmerman serving as State FFA Executive Director.

It’s about opportunity

So what is the Wisconsin FFA? “It prepares rural and urban students for careers in the agriculture, food and natural resources industries by providing opportunities to develop career skills and learn from the leaders of the state’s diverse industry,” the organization says.

Everyone seems to be taking photos.

The newest one

As I entered the door of the Exhibition Hall I noted a group posing for a photo and casually asked about the group; were they award winners, best of something, or what?  “No, these are the officers of the Union Grove High FFA. We are the newest FFA in the state and haven’t even had any agricultural instruction classes yet. We will start with the new school year,” the young woman taking the photos said. ”And, I’m Carrie Jacob, the instructor.”

“Let’s sit down and you can tell me the story,” I responded.  “OK,” Jacob said, “and I’ll bring our FFA Chapter president Connor Esch along.”

It turns out that Jacob was raised on a dairy farm at Waterford where her parents Ted and Jill still milk cows. “I was attending a national FFA convention and was talking to some friends about doing something different,” she said. “It turned out that the ‘something different’ was attending collegiate Oklahoma State University. I graduated in 2006 with degrees in animal science and agricultural education.”

Carrie Jacob, FFA advisor and Connor Esch, president eagerly await the start of Agriculture Science classes at Union Grove - the first since 1965.

10 years in Oklahoma

“I taught ag education for ten years at Moore, Oklahoma, the town hit by a bad tornado in 2013 in which 24 people were killed and over 200 injured. A couple of years ago I got the urge to move back to Wisconsin.

“My parents told me of the efforts to return agriculture to the Union Grove school program—the last ag classes and FFA chapter were removed in 1965.“ 

Jacob says a referendum was passed and a new agriscience facility that includes two classrooms, a green house and an animal laboratory was built.

"I was selected as the agricultural teacher and have been developing a curriculum that includes a wide range of subjects ranging from small and large animal care to horticulture and wildlife management," Jacob explained. "We will offer subjects that can result in marketable skills."

The Union Grove FFA officers and advisor, Carrie Jacob (right), before ag classes were taught.

First classes since 1965

“This coming school year we will offer five different Ag Science classes and expect about 180 students,” Jacob says. “There are a lot grain farms in our area of Racine county.”

Connor Esch is the president at the new FFA Chapter at Union Grove High and was raised on a small hobby farm,” he says.

"I worked with a local Pioneer seed corn dealer and showed market hogs at the fair," Esch said, adding that he plans to attend college and seek a career as an agricultural engineer.

USDA Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Stephen Censky was a speaker and a popular subject for photos.

Not often

It’s very rare to have an FFA chapter before having any agricultural courses in a school but this was done at Union Grove to acquaint students about the agricultural potential available to them, Jacob explained.

"It’s been a long time—over 50 years—since Union Grove offered agriculture in high school but the 2018-19 school year will begin a new era for the school as agriculture rises again!" she said.

Dustin Williams, Ag instructor at Blackhawk Technical College came to the convention to learn.

While wandering around the many exhibits on display and talking with people, I met friend, Dustin Williams, Agri-Business and Farm Management instructor at Blackhawk Technical College, at Monroe. 

Williams said he came to the convention to talk with people and keep current with FFA.  So, we talked a bit about the technical college program and it’s place in the education  system.

“There are 16 technical colleges in the state offering one and two year ag degrees," Williams began. “At Blackhawk we teach agribusiness, science and technology and the students leave with a commercial drivers license, a commercial applicators (spraying and fertilizer) certification and an A.I. breeding certificate.” 

Lots of value

Williams says there are 30-35 students enrolled in the Blackhawk Technical College ag program that is just ten years old.

"We began offering a 2-year degree two years ago. We find that many farm-raised students under-estimate themselves. We try to instill confidence and have them realize that employers see tremendous value in employees with farming backgrounds," he said.

Cheryl Zimmerman is serving her 25th year as Wisconsin FFA Executive Director.

Growth continues

Cheryl Zimmerman, now in her 25th year as FFA State Executive Director, says the membership continues to grow.

“We’re over 21,000 members this year and are adding a new chapter (Union Grove)," Zimmerman said. “The Wisconsin Association of FFA is the largest career and technical student organization in the state. But as has been common in recent years we have a number of teacher changes and a shortage of applicants.”

Madeline Olson (left) and Topanga Hanson were seriously studying the chapter workbooks.

However, the new rules allow school districts to hire people who do not have education degrees but do have college backgrounds, experience and good skills, she added.

“Our Agriscience fair continues to expand with 85 entries this year in five categories: biochemistry/microbiology/food science, environmental science, zoology, botany and engineering,” Zimmerman pointed out.

The June 11-14th convention was jam-packed with events ranging from inspirational sessions to hourly workshops on topics such as “Agriculture in Wisconsin”, “The fight against hunger”, “Preparation-Confidence-Success” and "Marketing your Ag story.” 

There were also plenty of awards presented in dozens of areas of achievement to individuals and chapters.

Tables full of Chapter workbooks were on display. Granton FFA was named the winner.

The Waupaca FFA was named the state's top chapter—an elite honor that the program has received for 12 of the past 17 years. Granton FFA was the winner of the annual scrapbook contest, while Amelia Hayden of the Big Foot FFA Chapter was elected state president. Hayden is currently a student at the UW Madison majoring in Microbiology.

The 89th FFA convention was a learning, fun and inspirational event for all and again shows that young people are involved in the past, the now and the future and that’s great!

John Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications. He can be reached at 608-222-0624, or e-mail him at