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FFA: Leaders in Training

Marengo’s Future Farmers of America is as much about lifelong leadership skills as it is about farm work.

The mission of the Future Farmers of America (FFA) is to educate students about the agriculture field, but it goes beyond that for students of the  Marengo chapter. “I think a lot of people think if you’re in FFA you’re just learning about crops or more about horses, but they also get a real sense what it takes to be a leader,” said Heather Schlesser, Marengo High School FFA advisor. “I’ve seen them all grow in their leadership skills. The ones who are more involved with the FFA have done better with that.”

A student must be enrolled in at least one agriculture class at the high school in order to be a part of the FFA, Schlesser said. “Not all of our members have serious farming backgrounds,” Schlesser said. “This year’s officer team only has one member who was born on a farm. The rest of them found out about FFA through agriculture classes.”

This year there are about 40 members in the Marengo chapter, she said.

Kevin Sonntag, president of the Marengo chapter, didn’t grow up on a big farm, but said he joined the FFA because it was the only club that interested him. “I didn’t see any clubs in the school that I thought would be enjoyable and would connect with me,” he said. “It just seemed like the right choice.”

A common misconception of FFA is that all of its members are farmers, Sonntag said.  “A lot of people think that it’s just farmers, but there are a lot of different areas you can go into and you can meet a lot of different people,” he said.

Garnering Support
Being president has brought on its share of challenges, Sonntag said. This summer he has been busy contacting local businesses to get donations for the FFA. “It’s taken a lot of hard work and dedication,” Sonntag said. “You can’t take this sitting down.”

This summer Pfizer and Farm Animal Veterinary Service in Marengo donated $150 to the FFA. Donations from businesses and community support are big factors in helping the FFA continue its work, Schlesser said.

This year an alumni association was formed consisting of both community members and former FFA members. “The community has been super supportive of everything we’ve done,” Schlesser said. “They’ve helped get donations of milk and cheese for the dairy product Career Development Events (CDEs), as well as donating their time to help train our students in agriculture mechanics.”

CDEs are competitions students participate in throughout the year against other FFA chapters. There are three stages for each CDE, Schlesser said. The first is the sectional, followed by district, and finally, state. “If they place first at the state level, then they move on to nationals,” she said.

The first CDE for Marengo is horse judging in September. Sonntag said the CDEs are a good way to test what they’ve learned in the classroom. “It’s challenging sometimes and it’s very rewarding at other times,” he said.  “It feels pretty good when you come out of there with a first place ribbon.”

Along with CDEs, students also go various field trips, Schlesser said. “In the fall there is the [annual] Farm Progress Show that occurs in Decatur that we sometimes go to,” she said. “There is also the world diary expo that students go to every year in Madison, Wis.”

Opportunities to Grow
For Callie Zbel, farming is a family affair. Her dad was a farmer and her brother is a former FFA member. She said she’s learned a lot by being in the FFA, both in agriculture and outside the classroom. “You get put into new situations so often and you learn to be more of a leader, which will help later on in life even outside agriculture,” Zbel said. “It’s a really good program and it’s something I think students should get involved in.”

The FFA is an important option for students, Sonntag said. “There are a lot of kids that grew up on farms so it’s important to have something that they are familiar with,” he said.
“It’s also an opportunity for those who grew up in the city and aren’t familiar with farms to get exposed to it.”

Not every club can offer the unique experience of the FFA, Schlesser added.“There [are] a lot of clubs students can [join] in school and they’re all good,” Schlesser said. “The FFA gives them the opportunities to grow in multiple areas. Since FFA is part of the agriculture curriculum, it helps tie in the knowledge that they’re learning in the classroom.”

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