With 7,859 chapters across the nation, it takes a small army of FFA advisors to step up to the job and advise FFA students each year. But it takes dedication to do the job right.
“I’ve had the privilege of directly seeing the impact that agriculture education and FFA has had on my life and the lives of thousands of students,” said Riston Zielke, Hebron, North Dakota FFA Advisor.
It’s a privilege Zielke doesn’t take lightly.
“We know not each student that walks through the door is going to be involved with agriculture. But they will be more educated about where their food comes from,” Zielke said. “They will be improved leaders. They will have developed career skills. They will identify what it means to personally grow. And because they will do all of these things, they will keep the organization in a position to keep reaching young people for generations to come.”
Zielke grew up in the small town of Wishek in south central North Dakota. His dad manages a grain elevator and his mother works at the local hospital and clinics as a clerical staff manager/accounts receivable. Zielke grew up in town, but that didn’t stop him from often visiting both pairs of grandparents on their farms.
“Those are some of my most cherished memories,” Zielke said. “I fell in love with the lifestyle and yearned to have it become my lifestyle.”
Zielke said his big break came in seventh grade when he was able to finally join FFA.
“FFA was the first place I found a school activity I could not only be involved in but I could compete and be rewarded for my efforts,” Zielke said.
From there the young member became heavily involved on the chapter level — competing in judging contests and attending any FFA event he could. Zielke even served as the North Dakota State President in 2003-04 and later received his American FFA degree.
It wasn’t until his senior year, he decided to go into agriculture education.
“I was visiting with a friend that I had met in FFA on the old MSN messenger. She was going into agriculture education at NDSU and asked why I wasn’t going to pursue agriculture education as a career,” Zielke said. “I made the comment that I wanted to make money. She replied with telling me she would rather be happy and enjoy her job than make more money. At 18 years of age I came to that same realization and from that point on I was committed to being a teacher of agriculture.”
Zielke enjoys the diversity of instruction that is involved with ag education, pointing out that in one day he can have his classes anywhere from outside learning range plants to studying the anatomy of a meat animal in the classroom to welding up a project in the shop. He also said it is a great opportunity to address a lot of the misconceptions about where our food comes from and what truly constitutes a healthy and safe food supply.
“Agriculture education is one of the few content areas that addresses teaching our young people about our food supply,” Zielke said. “The percentage of farmers through the generations has declined tremendously … our society needs agriculture education to keep our youth connected to the source of their daily nourishment.”
An ag teacher and FFA advisor at Hebron for eight years, Zielke has learned some tricks of the trade along the way:
- Be patient. It can take time to get student, parent, and community buy-in to support a program to the point it can be promoted and successful. To further explain, one of the things that helps our program to be successful is the reputation it has as a successful organization but in a new school you won’t have that reputation, you’ll have to build it.
- Be selfless. You are going to need to put in a lot of extra hours. Always remember it is for the students and getting them to be as successful as they can possibly be. When Zielke looks at the most valuable investments of his time he’s made – it’s investing in the future of youth.
- Have balance in the relationships that you build with your students. Don’t underestimate the importance of being likeable. People have a natural tendency to follow people they like and in this position, you should be leading. In saying that, be likable while still maintaining respect, professionalism, and a positive learning environment.
Being an FFA advisor and ag teacher aren’t Zielke’s only jobs. You can hear Zielke’s voice at rodeos across the state of North Dakota announcing events from saddle bronc to bull riding. He also started his own ranching operation.
Zielke said managing time can be a struggle, especially during certain times of the year, but he credits keeping his head above water in all three careers by following a few simple rules.
“First of all, I don’t work alone, I have surrounded myself with great people and students that have a daily impact on my success. Furthermore, I live by John C. Maxwell’s Law of Priorities. I know I can’t get everything done each day but I can prioritize what needs to get done and what can wait,” Zielke said. “And lastly, I love what I do in all three. My vacation is working with cattle and making hay. I go fluently from one to the next and I enjoy the variety of life experiences I get from each of them. “
Zielke’s advice for a young person considering a career as an FFA advisor?
“The first would be to get some trustworthy mentors that you can listen to and seek out for advice. The second would be to take in as many agricultural and FFA experiences as you can to get your feet wet and build your knowledge base,” Zielke said. “Lastly, it won’t always be easy but the best things in life never are. You’re going to climb a mountain; there will be some setbacks but at the top the view is breath taking. Just remember to take it one step at a time.”
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