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FFA youth look to the future after a year disrupted by COVID-19

By Tim Alexander
Illinois Correspondent

TAYLORVILLE, Ill. - For FFA kids across Illinois, the list of activities, milestones and treasured family traditions uprooted by the COVID-19 pandemic continues to grow. The state FFA convention has been canceled, and county and state fairs are among the activities that have been scrapped, postponed or threatened by the spread of the virus, which resulted in Governor JB Pritzker’s issuance of a stay-at-home order on March 15.
From there, the fallout began when the University of Illinois Extension announced that no in-person FFA events or gatherings of more than 10 individuals would be permitted until late June at the earliest. So far, state fair officials haven’t decided whether to cancel Illinois’ two state fairs in Springfield and DuQuoin, according to fair manager Kevin Gordon. Several county fairs – where FFA members compete in livestock and other exhibitions for the right to show at the state fair in Springfield – have already been canceled or postponed.
The ways that members have adapted to keep their chapter moving ahead is a source of inspiration to Taylorville High School FFA adviser Katie King. “It has been a very strange year but students, teachers and administration have worked extremely hard to make the best of a bad situation,” King told Farm World on May 23.
“One of the big events the kids missed out on was State Awards day,” she said. “Our members who won at district missed out on interviewing at U of I; instead they had to do a video conference via the Internet. Also, there were various other contests such as ‘district public speaking’ which the kids had to do on the Internet. Our traditional banquet has been canceled but we are excited to host a ‘drive in’ movie style banquet on June 5th. The members have worked very hard to record parts of the banquet, and we are excited to see how it turns out. We are still in limbo about our section fair. If that gets canceled the kids will not have a chance to show their SAE projects.”
Taylorville FFA member Tanner Mickey, a senior, said he has missed out on a lot of opportunities in FFA due to the pandemic. “One of my favorite activities I have missed out on would be the State FFA Livestock Judging Contest. Livestock judging is one of my favorite contests and one that my chapter has been very successful at. This year it is going to be virtual which makes things difficult as it can be challenging to judge livestock and give reasons online.
“I also missed out on the State FFA Convention, which is a very fun time for members across the state,” he noted. “We get to see our hard work pay off. This year it will all be done virtually, so it won’t be as fun, but we will still be honored for all our members’ hard work. Many livestock shows for the summer have also been canceled, which is very disappointing for all of the young people involved in the livestock industry. We work hard to care for our projects and not being able to show them is very disheartening.”
Around the state of Illinois, the stories are similar. At Harrisburg High School, FFA member Julia Keith is also lamenting her inability to judge livestock. “We have had tons of contests throughout the year and don’t get me wrong, I love all of them – but livestock judging is by far my favorite contest. I waited all year long on this and we got out of school on a Friday, and our first livestock contest was the Saturday after that,” said Keith, adding that she regrets none of her fellow FFA members will earn peer recognition for their accomplishments.
“I also have received my state degree this year, and I don’t even get to walk across the stage in front of everyone to receive it, because it’s going to be virtual,” she said. “That was a huge accomplishment for me and I was looking forward to it. We also didn’t get to do chapter officer elections, or section officer elections in person like we normally do. We are waiting till we get back to do chapter officers, but section officer elections are going to be virtual. 
Madelyn Hubble, a junior at Normal Community High School (NCHS) whose SAE is agricultural education, said she is trying to take all of the disruptions and changes in stride. “It’s been really different having to do my interviews online, after all of my other ones had been in person. Everyone is learning how to work with it, but not everyone has the type of access they need to participate at this time,” she said. “I am just trying to do my part, personally. I am not going outside unless I need to, and not leaving my house just because I feel like it. I feel if I do my part it will encourage other people to do theirs. I am not an anxious person, but I do feel nervous because there are people who are ignoring the stay-at-home order and they are not exactly helping the situation.”
As for the cancellation of the state convention, Hubble is disappointed but sanguine. “I believe it’s kind of inevitable at this point, but I was actually able to get my state degree this year and I am not going to be able to get that. I have a couple of senior friends that got their degrees this year and I just feel terrible that they are not going to have their last convention of that last moment on the stage.”
Peter Metivier, a freshman at NCHS FFA, said he was looking forward to completing his CDE, or career development event, called ‘Creed Speaking’, when the pandemic disrupted the school year and all FFA activities. “I was supposed to compete in that in May, but we don’t yet know if we are going to do this virtually or if it will be canceled altogether,” he said. “It is hard to put into words how I feel about this pandemic and what’s happened. It’s hard to comprehend, this is such a big thing.”
Some are expressing their thoughts and frustrations on social media. A particularly touching post to Facebook by Jenna Wheeler, a sophomore at Lakeland College, described a tearful kitchen table conversation with her father over the loss of showing animals at fairs. The post also serves to encapsulate the virtues instilled by FFA and farming:
“Getting up in the morning and working hard, even with so much uncertainty and unknown, and then things not necessarily going as planned is KEY to a young person becoming the kind of upstanding citizens this industry is known for,” Wheeler’s post reads. “Going to the barn as a family and loving what you do is worth the feed bills, cleaning pens, and rinsing calves even if there never is a show. One day, you’re going to age out and close your show-box for the last time – I promise you, it’s not the banners or shows you’ll miss; it’s doing chores with your dad. Keep going to the barn, be thankful to be involved in agriculture and glorify God always!”