For FFA members at this year’s 82nd annual Wisconsin FFA Convention in Madison, it was business as usual as they took part in their contests, received their hard earned awards and took time to see the sights around the capitol city. For many of the adults at the convention, especially the agriculture instructors and FFA advisors, there was a definite feeling of apprehension and concern about their futures and their programs’ futures as the state budget was being passed just a few miles away at the state capitol.
As has been the trend for the past few years, convention attendance was over 3,500 with 428 FFA members receiving their state degrees, the highest honor the Wisconsin FFA can bestow on a member for their participation in the program. One program that has grown significantly and where Wisconsin is a national leader is the relatively new, just 10 years old, Agriscience Fair. That program began as more and more emphasis has been placed on agriculture instructors to make their programs more science based and for those instructors to have a science certification on their teaching credentials. Wisconsin instructors have taken that challenge and are exposing more and more students to the science of agriculture, in part through the Agriscience fair and the projects students develop and display for the FFA Convention.
When the Agriscience fair began in the state there were just 15 projects entered in the competition with between 25 and 30 students involved, depending if it was a team or individual project. This year there were over 80 projects entered with about 140 students involved. The basis for all projects is based on some science related study. Categories include, Biochemistry, Microbiology and Food Science. Other areas of research include Environmental Sciences, Zoology, Botany and Engineering. Competition is broken down into two groups—Middle school and High school categories with the top gold in each category advancing on to the national FFA Convention this fall in Indianapolis. That means 16 different projects from this year’s convention will move on.
A rather unusual highlight from this year’s convention happened in the speaking contests. Two students from the Cochrane-Fountain City FFA won the prepared and Extemporaneous competitions—a rare double for one chapter. Megan Hurlburt won the prepared and Jacob Kafer won the extemporaneous contest. The two students were also co-valedictorians of their senior class along with three other students. In fact, all five are members of the C-FC FFA chapter.
While the students were on stage getting their awards the talk outside the convention hall was all about how the new state budget will impact elective classes, like agriculture, in state high schools. David Kruse, Elkhorn high school agriculture instructor and FFA advisor, is the incoming president of the Wisconsin Agricultural Educators Association. He told us he doesn’t have the final word on how many programs will be cut back or even shut down because of lack of funds with no state cost sharing dollars coming to local school districts. Since there is no central location to keep track of the information, he said,”all we know now is what we hear and it looks like about 25 of the approximately 250 high school ag programs in the state are looking at some cuts to even total elimination. Everything is fluid until the first day of classes.”
State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Dr. Tony Evers, addressed the convention and told them how important it is that Wisconsin expand agricultural programs into the big cities of the state to help students learn about food production and the importance of agriculture to the state. When we asked him how to do that with these tight budgets, he was unsure but he did say, “we have to look at these times as a one time situation. This is not a new normal, rather it is a new abnormal and we can’t let ourselves get into this situation again.”
As for the new tools the budget is supposed to provide local school districts to survive without state funding, many administrators still don’t seem to know fully what those tools are. Gary Berger is a former agriculture instructor at Loyal, a principal at Bonduel and is now the Superintendent of public Instruction for the Horicon schools. He told us “the changes in the way teachers pay part of their retirement benefits and health insurance costs are helping some but it’s not been good for the district overall because we have no choice but to cut programs.” In fact, Berger added, “those contributions from our teachers will only make up about 40% of lost revenues and our teachers have agreed to kick in more than was required by law.” Berger said he and the school district have been put in a tough place because they just re-instituted a combination Agriculture-Technical Education program about a year ago and the community has been adamant about keeping it in place. Like other administrators and teachers we talked with at the convention, their concerns might not be during the coming school year but in the next few years as they expect even deeper cuts to programs like agriculture and the attendance at future FFA Conventions might not be where they are now and fewer students will be recognized for their project work.