Portage High School sophomore and FFA member Kayle Hibner, center, prepares slides of spinach leaves for the microscope during Theresa Schiferl's (left) agri-science class Wednesday. Schiferl's students have been studying photosynthesis.

NOAH VERNAU/Daily Register

Portage High School students Kaylee McReath and Kayle Hibner didn’t join FFA strictly for agricultural education. What they’re gaining from the club, they said, shouldn’t surprise people.

But it usually does.

“I’d say FFA will help you in any field where you need to be a good leader,” McReath said. Future Farmers of America changed its name to National FFA Organization almost 30 years ago, she added, and the career interests of its members tend to demonstrate why.

McReath is a senior serving as vice president of Portage FFA. She’s interested in becoming an emergency room nurse after high school.

Hibner, a sophomore, has grown up on her family’s crop farm. She wants to pursue a career in agriculture when she finishes her schooling, but not in the traditional sense.

“I want to be an agronomist, the person who helps the farmer test soil,” Hibner said Monday in her agri-science class, which is taught by FFA adviser Theresa Schiferl. In a few minutes, Hibner and her fellow classmates would put spinach leaves under microscopes, observing how different plant parts react to light.

Personal growth

Portage FFA has about 130 high school members this year, which is near the norm, said Schiferl, in her sixth year as FFA advisor in Portage. Its value goes beyond the numbers, but the numbers are good. About a month ago her students attended the National FFA Convention in Indianapolis, where three Portage graduates received American FFA Degrees.

“Less than half of a percent of all FFA members earn their American degrees,” Schiferl said. Recipients of American degrees need to be at least two years removed from high school – “You can be in FFA until you’re 21,” Schiferl said – and they must demonstrate the highest level of commitment to FFA.

“They were all FFA officers here,” the adviser said of Portage graduates Tori Timme, Moriah Rataczak and Sarah Daentl. “They worked hard in high school, and have worked even harder after high school. You can definitely tell they have a passion for FFA by achieving this honor.”

Daentl is pursuing a career in art therapy at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. Rataczak is studying precision agriculture – a farm management concept that aims to preserve resources and optimize returns. Timme is studying agricultural education.

“We encourage (students) in personal growth – being aware of their surroundings, of what’s going on (in careers),” Schiferl said.

“Exposing them to different options is big.”

Proficiency winner

About 10 percent of all jobs in the U.S. are related to agriculture. But Schiferl isn’t disappointed – not at all – when students pursue careers in different fields. The club’s most recent Wisconsin FFA Proficiency Award recipient – Katelyn Vesely – is studying criminology at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.

“That’s a really big honor in Wisconsin,” Schiferl said of Vesely’s award. The 2016 Portage High School graduate went on to place in the top 10 at the National FFA Convention. The award recognized Vesely’s work at Indian Trails Campground in Pardeeville, where she maintained the grounds, fire pits and assisted campers in canoeing and kayaking on the Fox River.

“She improved and grew so much (as a person) in that time,” Schiferl said.

‘Making yourself better’

McReath’s favorite offering of FFA is public speaking. Portage FFA is right now preparing for speaking competitions at the district level to be held in February.

“It’s helped me to become a leader,” she said. Honing your skills, like in public speaking or essay writing, “that’s good for college.”

“You also make friends from around the country, or even just in the towns nearby,” said McReath, who hasn’t ruled out a career in agriculture business. “I’ve met so many people in the workshops and conventions,” talking to students with a wide range of interests.

At a recent conference, Hibner learned how and why it’s important to seek mentors when exploring careers. Other workshops have focused on how farms can become more eco-friendly.

“There are conferences just about ag,” Hibner said, “but that’s not all of it. Some of it is just about your future – making yourself better.”

Follow Noah Vernau on Twitter @NoahVernau

Portage Daily Register reporter