Charting the course with FFA
WORTHINGTON — As Worthington High School FFA members gather this evening for their annual chapter banquet, they will have a special guest among them.
Arvid Nickel, 92, is a charter member of the Worthington FFA Chapter, which organized in 1939 when Nickel was a junior. He is one of just two charter members still living, and watched two sons and three grandsons make an impact in the local chapter.
The Worthington FFA Chapter was organized by Elmer Ziegenhagen at a time when many smaller districts were consolidating with Worthington.
Nickel, who attended Reading High School as a freshman and sophomore, was among students who either faced dropping out or attending Worthington High School in the fall of 1939.
“They closed Reading, Wilmont and Rushmore, and a couple of years later, they closed Bigelow,” Arvid said.
So, in the summer of 1939, Ziegenhagen visited many of the farms in the area, convincing fathers to send their sons to Worthington to be a part of the agriculture program. At the time, only about half of all kids went on to high school — the rest went to work after the eighth grade.
Arvid said it was his father who made the decision that he would attend high school. He was the youngest in the family, and the only one to continue his education beyond the eighth grade.
“Arvid’s dad was treasurer at the Reading school for years and had some interest in education,” said Jim Nickel, one of Arvid’s two sons.
There were 13 young men recorded in the Worthington FFA Chapter’s charter year. Back then, only males were allowed membership. Female membership in the organization wasn’t granted until three decades later, in 1969.
“We would go out judging,” said Arvid of his days in the FFA. They’d go to the Pfeil farm for sheep judging, Bill Malcolm’s farm to judge draft horses and the Thom farm for chicken judging, he recalled.
“It was a good organization,” Arvid said.
“It was an outlet for these country kids,” added his wife Pauline. “They sold candy for the FFA to make a little money.”
“We sold candy at the basketball games and they had amateur boxing then — that’s when we really sold candy,” Arvid continued with a grin.
From a membership of 13 in its first year, the Worthington FFA Chapter grew to 32 students by year two. As a senior, Arvid was elected the chapter’s treasurer.
Just as the Worthington FFA Chapter began to grow, farming was in the midst of transition.
“We got a tractor in 1938,” said Arvid. “There was a lot of horse farming yet. It was a transition from horses to equipment.”
Farmers raised primarily corn, hay and had pasture land, he said, and everybody had a few cows and chickens.
“Corn pickers were just coming in, otherwise you were picking corn by hand,” he added.
After high school and marriage, Arvid and Pauline settled near Reading, where they raised crops, livestock and their family’s second generation of FFA members, Jim and Don.
“Growing up on the farm, I was always interested (in agriculture),” said Jim, a four-year FFA member who served on the crops, meats and parliamentary procedure teams and was Chapter FFA President as a senior in 1967.
After earning both the Chapter Star Farmer award and his State Farmer degree, Jim went on to graduate from the University of Minnesota with a degree in agriculture education. He taught ag two years in Madelia before settling in Worthington and entering the insurance business.
Don, who now resides in Kiester, served as Worthington FFA Chapter Secretary and also earned his State Farmer degree. He began his career in agriculture education as well, and now works in the banking industry.
As for the third generation of Nickels, Jim’s oldest son, Trevor, was Chapter Vice President, Chapter Star Farmer and a State Farmer degree recipient before graduating in 1992. His FFA career was followed by Chad, a 1995 WHS grad. Chad earned his State FFA degree and now resides on the Nickel homestead near Reading, where he raises goats and hay. He also works for the city of Worthington. The youngest, Jeff, graduated in 1997 and also earned his State FFA degree.
“All three of the boys raised pigs out on the farm for their SAE (Supervised Agricultural Experience),” said Jim.
The trio also served on a variety of judging teams — Trevor with crops, Chad with soils and Jeff with dairy cattle evaluation.
“I think the biggest thing with the ag program connecting with the FFA is the leadership development that it gave back then in 1939, as I think is still very true today for the kids that are in the FFA program,” said Jim. “That leadership is something that is so important. It really helps as you move on in life.
“To me, that leadership is the most important part,” he added.
Looking to the future, Jim anticipates the fourth generation of Nickels — his 10 grandchildren — will one day soon be on the rolls of the Worthington FFA Chapter membership.
Daily Globe Reporter Julie Buntjer may be reached at 376-7330.