MANKATO — The pandemic has not helped the reformation of a FFA chapter at Mankato's high schools.
But a small but dedicated group is competing virtually while they work to educate classmates that FFA is not just for future farmers any more.
“I just want to have fun and better myself and grow the chapter as much as possible under the circumstances," said Brynn Bohlke, chapter co-president.
The revived FFA club is one of the new opportunities for students as Mankato Area Public Schools grows its agriculture, food and natural resources program established last school year.
Olivia Sieberg, co-president of the new FFA chapter, came to East High School on the first day of the year wearing her father's old FFA jacket. Her dad was a Mankato FFA officer in the 1970s and she was anxious to follow in his footsteps.
In her father's time the club was called Future Farmers of America. There was no Mankato chapter when the nearly century-old national youth organization's name changed to FFA to reflect its broadened scope to many forms of agricultural and leadership education.
It's not clear when exactly the Mankato chapter petered out. It was at least 25 years ago, according to Ethan Dado, who is adviser to the new chapter and teaches the agriculture, food and natural resources classes.
All East and West students who take one of Dado's classes now can join the FFA for free thanks to a federally funded grant.
Sieberg and a handful of East classmates were the first to jump at the chance in the fall of 2019. Bohlke led a few West classmates to join last spring.
Last school year the inaugural chapter members participated in their first regional contests and one team qualified for state in poultry judging and another student qualified in a public speaking contest.
There are 24 challenges, ranging from forestry to food science, in which Minnesota FFA members can compete. Some competitions are for individuals and others for teams.
Contests had to move online last spring through this winter. The format of state contests this spring has yet to be decided.
This year Sieberg's floriculture team already has earned an invitation to state. Floriculture involves plant identification and propagation, and floral sales.
Sieberg, now a senior at East, already had some knowledge in the subject. Her family grows a variety of plants in a greenhouse in Madison Lake.
Bohlke is on a team preparing to compete at a regional dairy judging contest. Participants evaluate cattle based on their appearance and are tested on their knowledge of the dairy industry.
Bohlke, a sophomore at West, does not have much experience with cattle. But she raises another species of milk producers outside of Lake Crystal: Nigerian dwarf goats.
Identifying plants and judging cattle from online photographs has been more challenging than seeing living versions in person. But they're making the best of it, the chapter co-presidents say.
There are other opportunities within FFA as well, including leadership activities, summer camps and “degrees” that members can earn through completion of FFA activities, community service and other goals.
“FFA is so broad and our students are still learning about all of the different things that they can do,” Dado said.
Sixteen Mankato students have participated in an FFA competition so far, and the chapter's leaders are working to build more interest. After months of being limited to online recruiting, club leaders are planning a sledding social next week for current and interested members.
Mankato students can join FFA at any time, the chapter's leaders say. It's not too late to sign up for some of this year's competitions.
“You can join right before a competition and still do fairly well if you put the effort into it,” Bohlke said.
The leaders said the biggest recruitment challenge is getting classmates to understand FFA is not just for future farmers.
“I don't think people realize it's more than just farming,” Bohlke said. “It's growing friendships, your skills, your leadership and your confidence.”