COLUMNISTS

92nd Wisconsin FFA Convention - Unstoppable!

John Oncken
This year's theme of the 92nd Wisconsin FFA Convention was "Unstoppable".

The huge lobby of Exposition Hall at the Alliant Energy Center in Madison was filled shoulder to shoulder with blue jacketed, black pant/skirt, white shirt/blouse-clad high schoolers, on their way from one meeting to another down the long hall and I was sort of in the way.     

It was the 92nd annual Wisconsin FFA convention running July 5th through 8th and there were some 3000 FFA members their FFA Advisors and friends in the building and I admit I felt a bit out of place in the big hall of youth. Note: Because of the pandemic last years convention (like so many other group gatherings), was not held on a person/person basis.    

Not Future Farmers only - today

When I was an FFA  member, FFA stood for Future Farmers of America but as farm numbers declined over the years the three letters now stand alone with no direct connection to kids becoming actual farmers, rather as educators in line with the FFA mission: To make a positive difference in the lives of students by developing their potential for premier leadership, personal growth, and career success through agricultural education.

Cheryl Zimmerman of Spencer is now in her 28th year as State FFA Executive Director,

19,000 strong

Cheryl Zimmerman of Spencer, now in her 28th year as State FFA Executive Director, says the state FFA membership is at 19,000 members in 252 Chapters – a decline of some 1,500 members over the pandemic year.  

“Some schools cut back activities over that year," she says. “There were 15,000 members when I started in 1993.”  She also explained that private high schools have added agriculture courses and FFA chapters and this year North Crawford Schools was presented a Charter as a new chapter.    

To educate

“Our aim is to educate consumers about farming and things such as fake food and to have an agricultural course in every school – we are not there yet,” Zimmerman says.     

Dan Ellis, Independence, Wisconsin FFA officer in 2006, volunteers each year to help decorate the stage at the convention, and says it's his way of "giving back".

A full program

What do 3,000 FFA Convention attendees do over the four-day event? They attend meetings that range from motivational to presentation of awards to entertainment and leadership events of several kinds. There are musical presentations by the State Honors Band and Chorus and leadership and enterprise awards of may kinds.   

But, my guess is that the main activity among FFA members is talking to each other as rural and city kids meet for a common reason at a central location. I’m also sure that for many FFA'ers, especially those coming from a far distance, that visiting the State Capital and the Capital city of Madison is on their agenda.                                  

FFA members are all dressed proudly in their signature blue corduroy jackets.

All blue

Attend one of the general sessions or watch the FFA members gather in the Exhibit Hall lobby and you will see a “sea of blue.” All are dressed alike. It’s a rule: An official FFA jacket, zipped to the top; black slacks, black socks/nylons or black knee-length skirt and black nylons; white collared blouse or shirt; official FFA tie or scarf and black dress shoes with closed heel and toe. I doubt that anyone complains, it’s the dress of honor.   

Jeff Hicken was a much liked FFA advocate and was memorialized at the convention.

Memorials mark sad passings

There were two sad memorial displays in the Exhibit Hall lobby: One honoring Jeff Hicken who died June 18th. Jeff served on several statewide boards and organizations but his position as State FFA Advisor with the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction put him at the front of supporting agricultural instructors and FFA advisors statewide. 

The The second memorial honored Ben Chadwick, 16, of the Marshall High School FFA (who was to be president this coming year) who was killed in an auto accident July 2nd. 

Some history

In 1917, the Smith Hughes Act established vocational agriculture in public schools and the Wisconsin Association of Future Farmers of America (FFA) was formed in 1929. That was the same year the organization's official colors of National blue and corn gold were adopted and remain unchanged today.

In 1933, the blue jacket with the FFA emblem on the back was made the “official dress.” In 1969 women were allowed to become members and in 1988 the official name was changed to The National FFA organization in light of changing farm conditions. And in 1995 the annual convention left Green Lake for a new home in Madison, first at the Civic Center and in 1997 to the Alliant Center.                               

An experience not to be forgotten as FFA Chapters have their picture taken.

Yes. I was an FFA member three of my four years in high school and well remember learning how to test milk thus burning lots of holes in my clothing from the sulfuric acid used in the Babcock test, welding farm equipment and judging livestock at a state FFA contest all so long ago. And the not to be forgotten state conventions at the American Baptist Assembly at Green Lake held in a sweltering unairconditioned hall.               

"And, yes, we were also virtual again this year as the entire Conference was live-streamed on our website,” Zimmerman says.                                                                   

The 92nd Wisconsin State FFA  Convention is now a memory, but as past president Joe Schlies of Denmark wrote in the program book: “Let's celebrate the FFA’s rich legacy and the next generation of leaders who are Unstoppable!”

John Oncken can be reached at 608-837-7406, or email him at jfodairy2@gmail.com.