Pittsfield FFA members

Pittsfield FFA members say part of the reason they were named Showtimes magazine’s Best FFA Chapter in America in 2019 is they work well together. Clockwise from top left are Skyler Smith, Mckayla Jennings, Lauren Saxe, Cody Bradshaw and Drew Welbourne.

PITTSFIELD, Ill. — When Pittsfield FFA made its video application for the Best FFA Chapter in America contest, the students featured in it said their goal was “world domination.”

They were only half joking, said Jody Heavner, their FFA advisor and agriculture teacher at Pittsfield High School in western Illinois. If there was an international title they could vie for, they would put the work in and aim to win, she said.

That sassy but smart two-minute video the students created helped them win The Showtimes livestock magazine’s 2019 Best FFA Chapter in America title through on online Facebook vote. Topping 10,000 votes in 24 hours in the annual contest is quite a feat for a high school of about 300 students.

“It was 14 voices in two-minutes. That’s what made it successful,” Heavner said of so many of her students having something to say in the video.

The students are from different backgrounds, have different interests and different plans for the future, but they are united in their efforts.

Community-minded

This isn’t the first time Pittsfield FFA was recognized for outstanding work. The chapter won FFA’s 2017 National Premier Chapter award in the building communities category. Drew Welbourne, a senior and FFA officer, pulls out the plaque to show it in their high school classroom decked out in awards and FFA symbols.

This award recognizes their community commitment, including replacing about 150 trees damaged by storms in Pittsfield and Pike County, she said.

The 2017 award also recognizes their “Heroes Among Us” project. Instead of a traditional tribute to veterans, this project is a nod to people currently serving. The students erected 2-foot aluminum signs with names of deployed local service people throughout the city, which has a population of 4,000 and is the county seat.

This FFA chapter of about 132 members makes up more than one-third of the student population at Pittsfield High School. Cody Bradshaw, a senior, said his family members and older friends were FFA members, and he knew he wanted to do the same to meet new people, get a better understanding of agriculture and help the community.

“It’s something everybody did,” he said.

He intends to be part of his family’s grain and swine operation, so his supervised agricultural experience project about manure application fit well with his future plans.

Kurtis Johnson, the chapter’s vice president, said among the things that make his agricultural class interesting is learning about different aspects of the industry, he said. While located in the middle of corn and soybean country, in January, they learned about potatoes.

Welbourne missed the last day of the lesson because she was traveling, but ironically ended up sitting next to a Minnesota potato farmer on the plane and had something to talk about, Johnson said.

Always evolving

Although Heavner said it’s all about the students and encourages them to take the lead in the conversation, they appreciate her contributions. A week earlier, Heavner, who teaches at the same high school she attended, was named one of five finalists in Illinois for Ag Educator of the Year through Nationwide’s Golden Owl Award. Nominated by her students, she is among 32 finalists in California, Illinois, Iowa, Ohio and Pennsylvania being recognized.

“No two years here are the same. We do something different every year,” said Heavner, who has taught at Pittsfield for 12 years.

The curriculum is dictated by the needs she discovers in the community and the interest and talents of the students. In 2019, the students made 20 tied blankets for St. Louis Children’s hospital.

“We invited in community members to help,” said Lauren Saxe, a senior.

“Anything we can do to help, we do,” Bradshaw said.

In December, they learned from a Jasonville social worker that young people in foster care who move from place to place often carry their possessions in garbage bags. The students raised $2,500 in a week — more than 10 times their initial goal — and bought carrying bags for the foster children.

Other years they helped folks after flooding here or wild fires in Nebraska.

“It’s something every year,” said Heavner, who is part of a grain and cattle farm.

During the after-school conversation, each of the students, using their own phrasing, noted that they couldn’t have won the “Best Chapter” award — or any of the accomplishments they’ve achieved — without the support of the community.

Phyllis Coulter is Northern Illinois field editor, writing for Illinois Farmer Today, Iowa Farmer Today and Missouri Farmer Today.