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Generations come together, save ag program

Mindy Ward fire pit made by Sparks Maintenance Contracting
LIGHT IT UP: One does not attend an auction and not buy something. This firepit was donated by Sparks Maintenance Contracting out of Bowling Green, Mo. It shows just how far the support for agricultural education goes, two counties away.
Individuals and businesses statewide donate to support FFA and agricultural education.

With a loud “sold” echoing through the gymnasium, thunderous applause rose. In one night, a community stepped up to save the school’s agricultural education program by raising more than $70,000.

As I stepped back and looked across the room, I saw how this amazing night came to be. There they were — the old guard, the young blood and the next generation.

It took all three to save the agricultural education program at my local high school. When poorly managed financials created a situation where the school board was looking at solutions for its money shortfalls, it targeted the agricultural education program. This group stepped up and said, “Not on my watch.”

The old guard

Everyone has this group in their community, the ones who have either built the town or been around so long, you think they did. They are the ones who, as a kid, you saw volunteering at events. Today, they often prefer to stay in the shadows — they’ve done their years of service — and allow others to lead. But when something threatens their town or in this case the next generation, they emerge and fight.

Ours is Frank Stuermann. I’ve known him since I was a kid. I attended the same school as his children. He was the Warren County Fair chairman for years. To me, he was the guy in the ag shop with my dad teaching students how to weld.

Frank heard about the potential cuts and came out to help. He does it the old-fashioned way — pounding the pavement, talking to school administrators and pleading his case with local businesses. He closes conversations and gathers support with a simple handshake.

But don’t get me wrong. Frank is a forward-thinker. A master at fundraising, he devised a plan to sell advertisements for the Warrenton FFA chapter labor auction to local businesses and supporters. By the time he was done, it was 72 pages!

My point: Never discredit the old guard. They bring wisdom and business savvy. Engage them. Learn from them. Bring them back out of retirement.

The young blood

We sat in the Warrenton High School ag education classroom for the rejuvenated FFA Alumni & Supporters meeting and needed a new president. Everyone looked around. Finally, I broke the silence and said, “We need one of you younger ones to lead.” Without hesitation, Denise Dent said, “I’ll do it.”

While she comes from a large farm family, Denise’s occupation took her outside of agriculture. Still, like many other small-business owners, she served her small town. She was exactly the bridge between rural and urban support we needed.

Mindy WardWarrenton FFA members

TEAMWORK: It took all generations to help save the Warren County R-3 agricultural education classes and teacher. The group had until April 1 to raise the funds. The community spoke, and Warrenton FFA members delivered a check March 11.

Denise spent hours talking to her fellow merchants and getting donations for raffles, silent auction items and advertisements. She promoted the agricultural education program on social media and made pleas for the cause. It was not the “typical” way of the Warrenton FFA alumni, but it worked. The community engaged in posts, reading about the cuts and opportunities to support local students, and they responded.

My point: Never be afraid to step back and follow. This group brings fresh ideas and excitement. They are not beholden to one circle in their community, but they are often a part of many. Encourage that. Accept that. Get behind them.

The next generation

Forty-four students stepped up that night to work. They donated eight hours of their time to the highest bidder.

In other years, these individuals would’ve benefited from their efforts by using the funds for chapter events. Not this year, no, they donated all of the night’s earnings to saving their agricultural education program and teacher.

While some would benefit from the fundraising effort, there were a select few who would not — those were the seniors. Instead of looking out for themselves, they saw the future. They wanted to secure agricultural education not only for students already in the program, but also for those who want the opportunity to enroll. I was humbled.

My point: Never write off the next generation as self-centered. This group looks for ways to improve the future and create a legacy. Come alongside them. Support them. Build them up because, quite frankly, the world continues to tear them down.

Last thoughts

I’ve always been one who says, “Agriculture takes care of its own.” I missed something.

In communities like mine, agriculture does step up when times are bad, but so do local businesses and residents. Still, “local” and “community” is relative.

I sat behind my friends from neighboring Lincoln County who own a funeral home. In the bleachers were representatives from St. Louis construction companies, electrical and machinist associations, and even the Missouri Cattlemen’s Association. While these people may not be voters in the school district, they support agriculture education and students.

That night, the gym was filled with all sectors of our expanded local community — the old guard, the young blood and the next generation — simply because they care.

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