Words, deeds earn Tonak family 2020 'FFA Family of the Year' award in South Dakota

Staff reports
Farm Forum

BATH, S.D. — The South Dakota FFA Foundation named the annual “FFA Family of the Year” award, honoring a family's long-term involvement in the SD FFA/Agriculture Education program.

Because the 2020 SD FFA Convention was virtual, the award was presented and the family recognized at the 2021 South Dakota FFA Convention on April 12 in Rapid City, S.D. The 2020 recipient of this award is the Tonak family, including Lori, Dan and Nicole, along with their children, spouses and grandchildren: Samantha Tonak and fiance Michael Pettit; Ashley (Tonak) and Jordan Wiesen, and son Holten; Logan; Jennifer; and Reed and daughter Camryn.

"The purpose of this award is to recognize a SD FFA family that has gone the extra mile for the FFA at the local and state levels through their words and deeds," said Gerri Ann Eide, SD FFA Foundation executive director. "The actions of the entire Tonak family through multiple generations have modeled the FFA mission ... developing premier leadership, personal growth and career success through agriculture education. We are proud to recognize them with this special award."

The Tonak family put the phrase from the FFA Creed — "A faith, born not of words but of deeds" — into action.

Dan reflects, “The biggest influence I had in becoming an ag teacher was the love for agriculture our father instilled. My first choice was to be a farmer, but that wasn’t in the cards.”

Lori adds, “I started college as a dairy production major but was intrigued by the variety of courses ag ed majors were taking. After much soul searching, as my mom never wanted me to enroll in an agriculture course in high school, I switched to ag ed and never looked back.”

The name Tonak is almost synonymous with FFA in South Dakota. Active at the chapter, state and national levels of FFA, their association with the blue corduroy jacket spans decades.

Siblings Lori and Dan, as well as Dan’s wife Nicole have, and continue to actively support FFA for more than 36 years. Their father was an FFA member, as were three additional siblings. Their youngest sister LaDonna was the first female state degree recipient for Clark FFA in 1983. Lori, as one of the first female agriculture education teachers, has taught more than 28 years. She started FFA chapters in Artesian and Kimball, as well as taught agriculture education in Tulare and Newell, and currently teaches online ag courses for the DIAL Virtual School.

Dan has taught ag ed in Willow Lake for 34 years, where Nicole has been a huge supporter. They impact countless students in their own classrooms as well as other chapters. Dan has advised 27, and Lori six, state winning teams/individuals in different events that advanced to nationals.

Roxanne and Eric Knock, who had Lori and Dan respectively as advisers, share “They had a way of getting students invested in their own education and developing in them a drive to succeed. Lori had a passion for developing students and uncover their strengths. Dan helped students apply Farm Business Management principles to real life situations. Each of them gave students opportunities never imagined. They and their families have given a tremendous amount of time and talent to benefit FFA students throughout the state. This quote to describe the family: 'There comes that mysterious meeting in life when someone acknowledges who we are and what we can be, igniting the circuits of our highest potential.' Thank you, Dan and Lori, for acknowledging the talent that students didn't see in themselves and to the entire family for supporting you in this endeavor.”

Both Lori and Dan are active members of the South Dakota Association of Ag Educators and South Dakota Association of Career and Technical Education organizations, serving in officer positions and being recognized with various awards. Dan currently serves as past president for SDAAE and Lori serves on the National Agriculture Education Council, and currently serves on the SD FFA board of directors. They also serve as liaisons for FFA Leadership and Career Development events and Dan is a member of the South Dakota FFA Foundation board.

As parents and teachers, their children were active, influential and successful FFA members in the Kimball and Willow Lake chapters, where their FFA chapters served the community and its members by conducting countless service projects. Dan, Ashley, Jordan, Samantha, Jennifer, Reed and Logan served in chapter and district officer leadership positions. Nicole has judged and chaperoned countless FFA events and through her business contacts has helped coach, and secure various sponsorships for local, district and state events and activities, including a grant for the FFA Ag Adventure Center at the South Dakota State Fair. The family has seven state and four American FFA Degree recipients, and were members on eight teams that advanced to a national competition. Lori, Dan and Nicole have each received the Honorary State FFA Degrees. Ashley and Jordan are in their second year of sponsoring a scholarship for South Dakota FFA; Ashley and Jennifer actively judge numerous competitions at the district and state level.

Nicole works with Farmers Business Network. Samantha works at Wagner Super Foods and does photography. Ashley served as a state FFA officer and now works for ADM. Jennifer interned for the South Dakota FFA Association and now works for LG Seeds. Logan works in production agriculture raising a small flock of sheep, growing crops and working for a local farmer. Reed works for Farmers Implement and Irrigation.

In addition to their own personal successes, the Tonak family continues to promote FFA through their actions, participating in chapter and state activities, and supporting anyone involved. Every time they have been asked to help, with their time, talents or treasure, the answer has been “yes,” without hesitation. They are always willing to judge for district and area Leadership Development Events, state proficiency awards, offer encouragement to students no matter their chapter, and help youth from across the state become more knowledgeable about opportunities in FFA and agriculture. They are verbal advocates for agriculture education/FFA and all it can do for young people.

Leading by example, always willing to step forward and do a hard task, give their time to something they believe in and help other teachers, friends or community members, the Tonak family never misses an opportunity to expound upon how FFA helped grow the values and personal traits they wanted in their children and they want to help others receive that experience too.

Dan shares, “FFA was a part of our children’s lives before they were members. They were exposed and around FFA activities from a very early age, with memories of pancake feeds and watching early morning parliamentary procedure practices while in elementary school. After three generations of FFA, it was a part of everyday life for our entire family. FFA was something we didn’t stop and think about, we just did it and it still remains a part of everyday life. Nicole has been the biggest supporter, spending hundreds of hours doing thankless jobs behind the scenes to support our local activities as well as my involvement and student’s involvement in state and national activities. As an Adult Farm Management instructor, my sister Lori provides education and assistance to farm families in financial management and analysis, but also continues to support FFA by serving on national level boards that assist ag education and the FFA.”

Ashley adds, “being involved meant developing communication and leadership skills while getting a hands-on approach to all the agriculture industry has to offer. I met people, traveled, and developed my most valued friendships. Ultimately it shaped the trajectory for my career and my life.”

The Tonak family not only gives their time to the FFA, they give it to several other organizations, including: their church, city council, local ambulance and fire services, community daycare board, Kimball Center Food Pantry, Cargill Cares, Paragon Ridge CTE Consortium, 4-H, Midwest Cattlemen’s Association, American Society of Agronomy, College Students’ Association, hunt safe program, South Dakota Sheep Growers, and Snowdrifters. They are all active in the agricultural industry, and all actively seek ways to help educate and support agriculture education and FFA chapters through their careers.

The South Dakota FFA Foundation presented each Tonak family group with a "FFA Family of the Year" photo frame and thank you for their tremendous impact on agriculture education and FFA in South Dakota. The FFA Family of the Year award is sponsored by the South Dakota FFA Foundation.

The Tonak family receive the FFA Family of the Year award during the state FFA convention on April 12. Those present to receive the award were, from left, Logan, Reed, Nicole, Dan, Lori, Jennifer, Ashley and Holten.