Big things are happening in West Central Area agriculture education.

The FFA program has raised more than $150,000 toward a commercial greenhouse and one of its agriculture teachers has been inducted into the FFA Hall of Fame. Plus, there have been overseas travel opportunities for students.

Hall of Fame

At 36, Eric Sawatzke is one of the younger honorees to be inducted into the FFA Hall of Fame.

Because he has been fighting leukemia this year, he jokes that they felt a need to rush an award to him in case he was on his deathbed. In reality, the kind of leukemia he has is very treatable and he expects to recover just fine.

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Still, it has taken him away from the world of FFA which he has known since joining as a high school freshman in 1999 determined to beat his dad, who had come in fifth in an FFA statewide speaking contest when he was in school.

He ended up tying his dad for the honor. He also realized that he could really do something with FFA. Instead of being focused only on his immediate community, which his school tended to do, he began to look outward and see leadership opportunities at the state and national levels. He attended leadership training, made friends, traveled, and paved the way for younger classmates to do the same.

When he became a teacher, he led student groups overseas. That continued after he landed at WCA. He has taken students to South Africa, where they witnessed farmers laboring in dry conditions with oxen and plows and learned about efforts to restore the genetics of ancient livestock that might cope better with the climate than the Holsteins brought in by colonial settlers.

“It’s really easy to get closed in in western Minnesota and be in your bubble and not get to know what’s happening around the rest of the world,” Sawatzke said.

He makes sure his students learn that Minnesota has shrimp farms and some of the biggest tomato greenhouses in the nation. He has implemented national standards for agriculture education.

Being selected for the Hall of Fame, he said, is a “huge honor.”

“I haven’t even touched what I want to do in this organization yet,” he said. “I’m stunned and of course it’s a lifetime that I’m going to be paying back to this organization.”

It’s his power of persuasion that convinced area businesses and organizations to chip in for a commercial-grade greenhouse at the high school.

“He’s very knowledgeable,” said fellow ag teacher Ben Johnson. “When he comes into something, he has done the research, he has done the planning, there are no gray areas. Before he even tells anybody, he’s got the whole thing laid out.”

The greenhouse

West Central has never had a real greenhouse, Johnson said. They had a high tunnel once, but the wind ruined it after only a couple of weeks.

They do have a grow shed where they can grow lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers and other vegetables, thanks to a donation from Runestone Electric.

The greenhouse they are working toward will be a full-sized commercial structure with automatic controls. The $325,000 price tag might seem out of reach were it not for a $100,000 International Lions Club grant they have applied for.

They can use the greenhouse to teach plant science, greenhouse management, and agriculture classes, and grow produce for culinary classes and possibly the cafeteria, Johnson said. In keeping with the Lions’ efforts to reduce hunger, the school promised to grow produce for local food shelves if it gets the grant. Competition for this grant is pretty fierce, and the winner will be announced in May.

“If we get that International Lions’ Club grant, we will start this summer I believe,” Johnson said.

They’ll get a greenhouse no matter what happens with the grant, Sawatzke said, as many area organizations and businesses have contributed more than $150,000. It might just be a smaller greenhouse.

In the long run, he said, the greenhouse, the trips, the updated classes will all benefit the surrounding community as students grow up and try new farming ideas of their own.