Feb. 12, 2007

The promise of tomorrow

This FFA teacher isn’t just leaving a legacy – he’s fitting ag into modern world well

By Lynda Jensen

There’s no doubt that agriculture is a big hit at Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted High School.

“It’s one of the strongest programs we have,” commented HLWW High School Principal Mike Day.

The program is wildly popular with students, attracting more than 100 students per year, which is quite a feat for a school that graduates an average of about 85 seniors – all this, despite the lack of students wanting to pursue traditional agriculture.

In fact, FFA Advisor Jim Weninger, known as “Winnie,” has made it his business to vault agriculture into the lives of young people there as a relevant, modern-day topic for both farmers and non-farmers alike.

And it appears that this is exactly what he’s managed to do for more than two decades, with students who have continued into every area imaginable for modern agriculture, alongside young farmers, too.

But modern FFA isn’t what you might think, since modern ag includes science, small animals such as the veterinary field, butchering, marketing for crop production, and the education arena such as the Extension Service – as well as traditional farming subjects, amongst a great range of other subjects.

And it’s Weninger’s ability to catch the interest of both city and country kids together, giving them a clear understanding of agriculture’s importance in the Minnesota economy that makes his version of FFA so special.

Above and beyond this, the fingerprints of FFA students are everywhere in the community, Howard Lake, Winsted and Waverly, working on everything from installing playground equipment at the city park or doing landscaping at the school, to cleaning up storm damage on a local farmer’s field and sandbagging during the flooding of 2002.

“Anytime anything is going on, Winnie is in the middle of it,” commented former student Pat Bakeberg of Howard Lake.

Students who take part in FFA include a wide mix of kids, everything from college-bound students to those who are thinking about dropping out, and everything in between, commented Jim Fowler of Winsted, parent and FFA alumni.

It’s true that over the years, Weninger has seen fewer and fewer students who are young farmers. In fact, this year is one of the first ones that Weninger has no farmers in his class, observed Butch Bakeberg, FFA alumni.

Nevertheless, Weninger finds ways to bring agriculture to the student, such as when he conducted a milking contest in the high school commons with a live cow. He has a way of fostering an atmosphere of understanding between farmers and non-farmers alike, Day noted.

It’s important to remind all that agriculture is vital for the United States in general, Day said. “Other countries are jealous of our productivity. It’s what has made us powerful (as a country),” he added.

Picking up steam

This year, FFA students once again competed on a national level and placed second in food science. Last year, FFA took first place in the landscaping category in nationals.

Over the past several years, competing on a national level has become almost common place for HLWW.

“Sometimes we take the success for granted and expect it now,” Day noted.

If you ask Weninger why the program is so successful, he will tell you squarely that it’s the talent of his students.

However, if you talk with any of his former students, they will tell you that it was their FFA advisor, Winnie, who gave them the inspiration, courage – and a push – to take their destiny and run with it.

Whatever the case, the recipe for success is set, since Weninger has seen 48 students compete very successfully in state competition over 22 years, with two recently earning statewide positions, Eric Sawatzke as state vice president of FFA in 2004, and Jackie Koch as secretary in 2005, along with numerous other students who have attained regional honors or other distinctions.

The FFA chapter at HLWW has been named one of the top 10 chapters in the state in the past, and has been rated two out of three stars consistently over the last several years.

During the 2005-06 school year, six students achieved their American FFA degrees – an all time record for the school, with the following students achieving this ultimate status: Tom Bobrowske, Pat Bakeberg, Bret Butterfass, Jo Decker, Tanya Merritt and Amber Painschab. Less than half of one percent of FFA students attain their American degrees.

But there is another side of FFA that is also felt in the community, that of beautification and service projects done year-round.

“Retaining walls, flower beds, playgrounds, and wooden benches adorn the streets, parks and places of business in our community,” Groos said. The cobble stone in front of the HLWW high school was installed by FFA.

“This whole neighborhood would be completely different without them,” Butch Bakeberg commented. The students work primarily in the Howard Lake, Waverly and Winsted areas.

It is probably untold what projects the students have accomplished over the years because of the sheer volume. Students have also been known to do custom work for farmers, such as pouring concrete or building retaining walls, in exchange for money to donate for charity or to fund FFA projects, Day said.

Every year, FFA students raise about $2,500 to give toward Camp Courage, which is a service for people with disabilities.

There is an annual corn drive, and fruit sales that raise funds for worthy projects.

Weninger also conducts a Super Star fundraiser along with teacher Paul Fobbe, with students once a year, the proceeds of which are given to the food shelf.

At one point in time, four out of seven school board members for HLWW were FFA alumni, Randy Heuer, Gene Lorentz, Jim Raymond, and Jim Fowler.

In 2005, Weninger was nominated as Teacher of the Year. He fell short of being named as such, but to most who know and love him, he’s teacher of the year just about every year.

Prior to this, the City of Howard Lake set aside a special day, declaring it “Jim Weninger Day,” to honor his many efforts.

Who is Winnie?

He’s a kid who grew up on a Wisconsin dairy farm, who wears jeans, lace-up boots, and a sweatshirt, and has a big heart, said Linda Groos. Groos is a former student, and now Weninger’s colleague and friend.

“His fun-loving personality, along with his high expectations, draw students to his classes like magnets,” Fowler commented. “He demands high standards of himself first; and then of his students. He is a talented man of strong conviction who always puts his students first.”

“He’s just Winnie,” Butch Bakeberg said. “He’s so easy to get along with . . . everybody loves Winnie.”

Apparently, Weninger is also accident prone, to the point where his students gave him a fire extinguisher as a present one year during the annual banquet.

“He’s unique and spontaneous,” Pat Bakeberg said, adding that if anyone had the back luck to be in the wrong spot at the wrong time, it would be Weninger.

His modesty is also well known. “He is a humble man who always speaks of his students achievements and goals, not what he did to get them there,” Fowler said. “He finds it difficult to acknowledge his impact on the success of the HLWW FFA Chapter,” he added.

Weninger is also backed by his supportive wife, Lisa; who allows him to be gone all hours of the day and night. They have three children, Abby, 11 Madeline, 9, and Logan, 4.

It’s clear that students appear drawn to Weninger, embracing his teaching style, which allows them to make their own decisions. “He drives them,” Day said. “He gives them responsibilities.”

“He creates inspiration and motivation for them,” commented Dennis Butterfass, FFA alumnus and parent. His students grow personally and in their personal lives, he added.

“It’s clear that Winnie understands the simple truth that students won’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care,” Groos said.

“I have watched students stretch themselves into the arenas of public speaking, leadership training and parliamentary procedure skills because they know Winnie believes in them,” she said. “Perhaps one of the greatest compliments many students have paid him is making agriculture education their own career choice upon graduation.”

Several of his students have done just that by becoming ag teachers themselves, such as Tim Bakeberg, Molly Diers, and Eric Sawatzke.

Some students have continued to follow traditional farming paths. For example, Pat Bakeberg is a young farmer who milks 80 cows with his family, grows 600 acres of corn and beans, and owns his own hay baling business. Bret Butterfass also works the family farm, which milks 130 cows and grows 100 acres of corn for silage, said his father Dennis.

Other students are working jobs that incorporate agriculture concepts, such as Sarah Fowler, who works at a wholesale nursery with an agriculture business degree.

But, as Weninger would tell you, agriculture isn’t about just farming, even though this continues to be the mainstay of Minnesota’s economy.

It’s many other things, such as landscaping, studying small animals to be a veterinarian, or learning the components of animals for the purpose of butchering, or any number of subjects that are part of modern ag.

And with instructors like Winnie teaching the basic concepts of FFA, which still hold true today, students of tomorrow will continue to learn the wisdom of agriculture.

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