South Dakota agricultural education and FFA history: The 2020 state FFA virtual convention and COVID-19

Clark W. Hanson
Professor Emeritus, Agricultural Education, SDSU

Has it ever happened before that the South Dakota State FFA Convention was not conducted in the traditional manner?

Much discussion surrounding the current COVID-19 pandemic includes events in U.S. history which have been of similar character and scope: The flu epidemic of 1917-18, the Great Depression of the 1930s, and the beginning of World War II and Sept. 11, 2001. Was FFA impacted by these events?

While the author was unable to locate history of Depression-era state FFA conventions, one interview did provide some insight into WWII impact. The start of WWII is the only known (to the author) event prior to COVID-19 which caused the cancellation of a South Dakota State FFA Convention. An article, in this series, entitled, “SD Agricultural Education and FFA: The 1940’s & World War II Impact,” reports an interview with a Parkston native and resident of Gettysburg at the time of the interview. Mr. Marvin Hauge was elected SD FFA president in spring 1941 and the State FFA Convention and judging contests were not held in the spring 1942 due to the resulting gasoline and tire shortage. Hauge did not have the opportunity to completely fulfill his term of office. However, he did attend the National FFA Convention.

Seventy-eight years later, in spring 2020, resulted in school and community activities being cancelled nation-wide. South Dakota agriculture education and FFA leaders didn’t want the annual convention and other FFA events to be added to the “cancelled” list, so they stepped forward, got innovative and found a solution. What made these events possible? Technology, which has been a game-changer for society, proved to be the necessary tool in offering online options and a virtual FFA convention experience for FFA members. Distance education became a daily experience for our youth and is miles beyond the initial model labeled as correspondence classes. Zoom, Microsoft Team meetings, recorded videos, Skype and other platforms provided alternative delivery methods for the convention as well as spring online agriculture education classes.

Was it the same? No. However, the South Dakota FFA Association and South Dakota FFA Foundation staffs, state FFA officers, agricultural education teachers and industry supporters engaged and utilized distance education programming to allow students to engage, compete and received recognition for current and past efforts.

It started with most traditional spring chapter and district practice career development events being cancelled. The McCook Central FFA chapter in Salem, S.D., with advisors Terry Rieckman and Tracy Chase, stepped up early, worked with, and created a virtual CDE event in late April, with 14 areas for students to compete and test their skills. This was a first for South Dakota members and one of the first nation-wide. The event generated a great deal of interest, with 1,279 South Dakota FFA members participating from 70 FFA chapters. Open to FFA members nation-wide, it is interesting to note that 30 out-of-state chapters participated in the livestock evaluation event.

On April 14, Michelle Nelson, state FFA adviser, and Jeanette Klein and Jonathan Linke, interim executive secretaries, announced to South Dakota agricultural education instructors the “SD FFA COVID-19 CONTINGENCY PLAN” for conducting the state FFA convention and career development events. “In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the South Dakota FFA Association has made the decision to hold the 92nd State FFA Convention virtually, May12th-14th. Convention is not the only FFA program being affected by our state’s current situation. We will continue to offer as many opportunities for students as we can.”

Here’s a summary of how it all came together:

STAR interviews: Conducted virtually April 19 and announced during virtual convention.

States officer candidate and ambassador interviews: Conducted virtually May 1-3,2020, results announced during virtual convention.

Career development events: The state CDE committee, with Chair Dani Herring, assumed leadership roles and used the McCook Central practice event as a guideline to build the state CDEs giving members the opportunity to still showcase their skills. The state CDEs, showcasing members’ skills in various agricultural fields were held online May 6-7 with results announced during the virtual convention. The registration fee remained at $35/event. Over 1,000 members from 71 chapters competed in the following areas, altered to a virtual format:

  • Farm and agri-business management: Test, problems.
  • Agricultural technology and mechanical systems: Test, problem, ID.
  • Agronomy: Test, ID, placing classes.
  • Dairy cattle evaluation: Test, pedigree, sire selection, placing classes with questions.
  • Floriculture: Test, problem solving, ID, arrangement placing classes.
  • Food science: Test, sanitation pictures, safety scenarios.
  • Horse judging: Test, placing classes with questions.
  • Livestock judging: Test, placing classes with questions, keep/cull.
  • Meats evaluation: Test, batch problem, ID, placing classes with questions.
  • Milk quality: Test, problem solving, modified cheese and milk defect ID.
  • Natural resources: Test, problem solving, ID.
  • Nursery landscape: Test, practicum, ID.
  • Poultry: Test, parts ID, egg grading, placing classes.
  • Veterinary science: Test, math practicum, ID.

The following convention events were cancelled: Talent show, state choir, and the scrapbook contest. Honorary state degrees, distinguished Service awards, and the FFA Family of the Year recognitions were postponed to the 2021 convention.

Your author contacted Lexy Dunker, Wall FFA chapter member, about what it was like to participate in a state CDE not at SDSU. Lexy responded, “I had participated in the milk quality CDE the last two years. Since the quarantine started, the only contact I had with my team was when we were discussing in our group text whether or not we wanted to compete in the virtual contest. I was really curious to see how we were going to do this contest virtually because normally there are tasting sections. Since we couldn’t do that, they used pictures of cheese for ID and descriptions of the milk flavors and fat contents in the cheese. This was very different and difficult because it is hard to do the milk and cheese ID when you can’t physically touch and taste the sample. The written test was the same, only on the computer rather than paper. It was very different. To prepare, I took some practice tests.”

The spring 2020 state FFA convention is perhaps best summarized in an article entitled “Virtual Convention,” FFA’s New Era, June 2020 issue, published by the South Dakota State FFA Foundation: The South Dakota FFA Association met the challenge and proceeded with a condensed, virtual convention, May 12-14, themed “The Time is Now” in order that members and chapters who submitted awards applications could be recognized for their efforts, including proficiency awards, agri-science fair, national chapter awards, career development events, and stars. We also honored those students who completed the requirements and received the state FFA degree. The virtual setting also provided the backdrop for the state FFA association to elect a new set of state FFA officers, and bid farewell to the 2019-20 officers as they completed their year of service. The Ag Industry Career Carnival, Workshops, and a special sponsor recognition were hosted virtually through the SD FFA Foundation convention website. These, and the convention sessions, are archived and can still be viewed at

The South Dakota FFA Association annual business meeting will be conducted during state FFA leadership development events in December. Summer leadership retreats were cancelled, and may be replaced in the fall with similar content.

Dani Herring, former agricultural instructor at Wall High School and recently appointed SD FFA executive secretary, shared, “I agree that the nuts and bolts of the convention were covered pretty well during the virtual convention, but it’s really hard to recreate the feeling of being in a session or participating in a CDE in person. I believe the state officers did their best to provide the enthusiasm and it couldn’t have been easy in a studio.”

What’s next? The National FFA Organization has already announced that in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, they will offer individual challenge events, open to all FFA members that focused on career and leadership development, in place of traditional national-level CDEs and LDEs, previously scheduled for the 2020 National FFA Convention and Expo. This author contacted Lon Moeller, chairperson of the National FFA Farm & Agri-Business Management (retired SDSU agricultural education staff member) in an attempt to determine how that would look.Moeller reported the national FFA staff indicated that it would be mid- to late summer before the National FFA Convention plans are finalized.

It is unknown how the COVID-19 pandemic will impact agriculture education and FFA long term because of the creativity, adaptability and innovation it forced upon FFA members, teachers, staff and sponsors. Without a doubt, the 2020 FFA convention will go into the history books as a challenge agriculture education didn’t walk away from. History will identify the individuals who stepped forward with the technical skills and leadership capacity to make it happen. It’s a good sign that the future of agriculture is in good hands.

Jerry Janisch, Milbank High School agricultural education instructor, stated in a recent interview, “Early on, I outwardly thought, it (state FFA convention and related activities) would be cancelled.” In the end, Mr. Janisch was thankful for everyone’s efforts. All put forth the best effort possible.

Editor's note: To commemorate the passage of the Smith Hughes Act of 1917, Clark W. Hanson has written a historical summary of events that occurred in the South Dakota Agricultural Education program. Over a two-year time frame a series of articles will share how the South Dakota program originated and developed the past 100 years.

Gerri Ann Eide, executive director of the South Dakota FFA Foundation, contributed to this article.