Fred Zenk has taught ag classes for the last 27 years. He is the FFA Advisor for the Webster-Waubay program in South Dakota.
Fred Zenk has taught ag classes for the last 27 years. He is the FFA Advisor for the Webster-Waubay program in South Dakota.

By Connie Sieh Groop

In a tumultuous year for agriculture, hot topics facing the industry raise questions about the future. As students head to classrooms where ag is taught this fall, economic uncertainties will likely be considered in making career choices.
As the ag teacher and FFA Advisor at Webster-Waubay High School in South Dakota, Fred Zenk has 27 years of experience working with students. Have the students changed since he began teaching?
“Oh yeah, they have different projects and different attitudes,” Zenk says. “The SAE (Supervised Agricultural Experience) projects have fewer traditional crops and livestock. Not as many students are connected to a farming operation. Some have an entrepreneurial spirit so they take on more complex projects.”
Fifteen years ago, no matter what you were doing in ag, things were pretty good, according to Zenk. “I think parents talk less about careers as the whole family struggles with what the future will hold. There are a lot of opportunities so we make sure kids realize they can work in fields such as energy, ag law, precision ag, livestock and animal health fields.”
Low prices and tariffs leave those wondering how young people can handle todays challenges. Zenk grew up in the late 1970s and early 1980s, at a tough time for the industry. Few were encouraged to go into ag. Some who struggled later enjoyed success but it was tough to get started.
The demands by consumers for more information about food will increasingly impact the industry. For juniors and seniors, “We try to teach about agriculture as it relates to the whole globe,” Zenk says. “We see ag not just as a career but a way of life. The older students have sections on ag business that deal with the history of the industry and look at important current issues.”
Zenk’s students get real-life learning in the school’s, “Land Laboratory.” Students decide what crops to plant on 78 acres including choosing the seed, planting the crops and harvesting the crops, following no-till conservation practices. Six different varieties of cover crops will be planted this year.
Owner of Kuecker Seed Farm, former student Steven Kuecker of Webster says, “Fred is a fantastic hands-on ag education teacher. The way the ag economy is right now the most important thing a producer must know are his numbers.  In FFA you are given the opportunity to have an SAE project.  It can be crop production, livestock production, or maybe a garden.  These projects teach how to account for expenses, how to figure breakeven, and how to project strategic future business decisions. The understanding of those numbers and how they are figured in a hands-on environment helps a student succeed no matter what their career.  I cannot say enough good things about Fred and his FFA program.”

Valuable lessons
Another former student farms at Webster and puts what he learned into practice. Riley Johnson says, ”I believe a good budget is very important for farmers at a time like this, it is important to keep expenses at a minimum and try to make a buck anywhere you can. I learned how to make an agricultural budget in Ag classes and in FFA. It taught me where I do and don’t have money to spend on the farm. It is important to only invest money into assets that will in turn make you money.”
Being involved in ag industries is a way to stay close to their home area, Zenk says. Students who have an interest in technology or are mechanically inclined go for further training. Others find they can merge agronomy and livestock. Growing up in this area, where there is a lot of hunting and fishing, others pursue jobs involved with the environment.  Many of parents believe that ag careers offer a good choice.  
A few years ago, agronomy was the big push but now other areas attract students. The energy sector is huge as well as livestock and precision ag. “When students look down the road, the answers to two questions are important,” Zenk says. “Do you like living here? Do you like ag? If students answer yes to those two questions, then they need to figure out what works for them to make a living.”  
Sydney Swanson took ag classes from Zenk and graduated in 2017. Swanson currently attends South Dakota State University at Brookings. She believes ag education plays an important part of her life. She shared, “Many young people believe that Ag and FFA is just for those who grew up on a farm, but it teaches you so much more than just the agricultural side of things. Ag/FFA provides important information such as record keeping, speaking/social skills, personal growth, leadership skills, agriculture productions, and so much more. There are endless opportunities for them to find something that they are passionate about. I believe more young people should be involved in FFA because they have no idea how much agriculture makes a difference in this world.”
She says, “I think the biggest challenge for young people wanting to go into Ag is to sort through different topics and skills that are involved. Ag doesn’t cover one subject like English or Math, but instead it includes numerous subjects. You use just about every subject in Ag such as history, English, math, and science!”

Zenk is pleased to see students recognized for their efforts in receiving awards. Hearing from former students is satisfying. He says, “I’m touched by the students who come back to thank me for the information they learned that has helped their careers.”
FFA teams from Webster have excelled, often bringing home awards from the National FFA competition. Classroom walls display 15 plaques for range science, three plaques for agronomy, and two plaques for ag mech.
For his teaching expertise, Zenk received a national FFA honorary American degree. “I’m glad I got to go to the convention. I’m humbled and happy that students take advantage of the opportunities given to them.”
“I teach the basics,” he says. “I tell them if they want to win awards, they need to do the extra record keeping, take part in team events, and work together to study to win. Some take on the challenge and do well. My main thing is to teach basics and to motivate them.”
Ag runs deep in the family. Zenk’s wife Cindy works for the SD Soil Health Coalition. Three of their four children studied ag and work in ag-related fields.
Sometimes teaching takes a lot of work. “I can’t say I’d rather do anything else. Others may be more successful in different careers but I get a lot of satisfaction from working with the students. The biggest frustration comes from students who don’t apply themselves. I like what I do so much, I’ve made a career out of it.”
Swanson believes the ag program should be stronger. “I believe Ag education is something that needs to be made bigger and more important because, in my opinion, it inspires younger people in school to make a difference in their communities and environment,” she says. “During high school, numerous individuals in my school or surrounding ones didn’t even know what Ag education consisted of or what it offered. That is why Ag/FFA needs to be emphasized.”
Each year there are students who don’t want to open their minds to ag as a career, while there are many who dig around to learn how satisfying it is to produce food, fiber and energy as a career. Uncertainty in the ag sector may continue but there will be a need for people to work in the industry. Zenk says, “One secret to success is finding a career you like.”  

Connie Sieh Groop is a freelance ag journalist from Frederick, SD. Contact her at