Area high school ag and FFA programs are growing, with districts reaching beyond high school to attract new members. Eighth-graders are now being introduced to the world of ag and reaping the benefits of growing curriculum and experiences schools have to offer.

Altamont FFA

Altamont has an FFA program that continues to grow.

Last year FFA Adviser Stephanie Zimmer had 80 students in the district's agriculture program and 40 FFA members. This year she is expecting a larger number of members due to a new affiliation program that automatically includes students in the classroom.

“I know I have 36 freshmen this year so far,” Zimmer said. “And I'm also teaching an eighth grade class this year.”

This year is the first year there will be an eighth-grade agriculture class.

“It's a great way to start building the program at the high-school level,” Zimmer said. “Hopefully, they will get a taste of the program and enroll in high school as well.”

Zimmer is changing the way agriculture classes are presented during the school year.

“This year I am changing my curriculum around a lot,” Zimmer said. “I am going towards a case class that is a curriculum for science education.”

Part of the school's ag ed experience is the greenhouse, which kicks into operation after the school year starts. A committee is dedicated to greenhouse operations from maintenance and plants, to placing plant orders and running the register when selling them. Many of the plants are sold during the annual Hobnob festival held at the Effingham County Fairgrounds.

“All of our plants end up being sold during the spring,” Zimmer said. “I have plans to extend the sales season before Hobnob next year.”

Besides plants, the school's FFA chapter will be working on growing alumni this year. Zimmer restarted the alumni program last year.

“We are in the process of trying to grow that at the moment,” Zimmer said.

One of Zimmer's goals this year is for the chapter to host its own livestock contest on the chapter and section level.

“My kids are awesome,” Zimmer said. “I'll ask for one thing to be done and I have five kids willing to help out.”

“There's no thought. It's yes. Let's do it,” Zimmer added. “They're real go-getters.”

Altamont FFA members have an 11-acre plot of land they farm next to the Dr. Charles Wright home that was donated by the Wright family for their agricultural activities several years ago.

“Last year they had one variety of soybeans,” Zimmer said. “This year we actually turned it back into an official test plot.”

Their test plot consists of nine varieties of corn.

“The students plant it and harvest it as well,” Zimmer said. “And no one really needs to do anything in the summer months.”

“We won't touch it again until we harvest,” Zimmer added.

Dieterich FFA

Dieterich has 85 FFA chapter members, according FFA Adviser Garrett Helregel, meaning a majority of the high school's approximately 130 students are members.

The program has seen exponential growth under Helregel's leadership since he started nine years ago, when there were only 25 members of the chapter.

“It was a lot smaller when I started and we've done a lot of things to help promote it,” Helregel said. “So, it has grown really, really well for us.”

Two years ago, the Dieterich FFA chapter built a self-sufficient 15-by-65-foot greenhouse, using it to plant flowers and vegetables. The greenhouse is student-driven with the students doing all the work and their work is paying off.

“In the fall, we do a mum sale,” Helregel said. “Last year we sold 1,500 mums within about 24 hours.”

“The community really supports us,” Helregel added.

Every year students plant 15,000 to 20,000 plugs in the greenhouse to grow annual flowers and vegetables for their spring sale.

“The kids run a majority of the show,” Helregel added.

“We really have a good set of officers this year,” Helregel said. “I think it should be a really good year.”

To continue to grow, the high school ag program is piquing the interest of younger students.

Helregel says two years ago all eighth-graders were required to take an exploratory ag class to help increase the number of students who enter ag at the high-school level. As a result, more students are enrolling in ag-related classes on the high-school level.

“Teaching the eighth-grade class has helped in the terms of numbers,” Helregel said. “I started having to turn people away this year. I only have so much room in the classroom.”

On the high-school level, Helregel teaches introduction to agriculture, ag science, ag business, agricultural mechanics and horticulture.

“It is awesome working here,” Helregel said. “The community is so supportive.”

Teutopolis FFA

Teutopolis High School has a four-year ag curriculum starting at the freshman level with an introduction to agriculture covering topics, including livestock production, marketing, soils and record keeping.

FFA Adviser and ag teacher Dale Will says there are four other classes offered next year to include welding, mechanics, ag business management and ag power to include servicing engines, combines and planters.

“I'm really proud of my students,” Will said. “We had a very successful year last year.”

Last year the Teutopolis FFA chapter got first place in soils, ag business management, agronomy along with meat ID and evaluation.

“For a small chapter of 44 members, we are very competitive,” Will said.

The Teutopolis High School FFA chapter has two farm plots one by the high school and the other by the Teutopolis Junior High School for a total of three acres.