De Soto Teacher’s Agriscience Students Support Local Dairies and Food Pantries

The 2019 Wisconsin Idea Seminar cohort stands with De Soto High School teachers and administration following a tour and a panel discussion with students. The 2019 Wisconsin Idea Seminar cohort stands with De Soto High School teachers and administration following a tour and a panel discussion with students. (Photo by Catherine Reiland/UW-Madison)

Dispatches from Our Own Wisconsin: Hillary Bark of De Soto Area School District

Hillary Bark is an agriculture teacher and FFA (Future Farmers of America) advisor at De Soto Area School District, a rural school district in western Wisconsin. She graduated from UW-Platteville with her B.S. in Animal Science and went on to get her M.S. in Agricultural Education at Colorado State University. Hillary is “a jack of many trades,” teaching a wide variety of subjects, including food and meat processing, plant science, greenhouse management, veterinary science, leadership/communications, animal science, ag business, engines, and more. De Soto Area School District was a host for the 2019 Wisconsin Idea Seminar where participants learned first-hand from teachers, administrators, and students about how the community was affected by powerful floods in August of 2018. 

We caught up with Hillary to ask a few questions about how she and her students are adapting to unique learning conditions. 

In what ways has COVID-19 revealed the needs of your community? In many ways, COVID-19 has revealed that having a consistent and safe food supply is important to all people. Food pantries have been utilized more as people are out of work or being laid off, schools have begun food delivery when it was realized that many students rely on schools for nutritious meals, and stores have been cleared out again and again as people have stocked up on food to ensure their own family’s health and welfare.

Farmers and our state’s agricultural industry are important to help ensure a consistent and safe food supply, but we are seeing so many in our farming community struggle as well.  All farmers right now are dealing with processing and supply chain issues, from the beef and pork plants closing to the shift in the dairy market demand. Prices in the stores, in many cases, have increased but farmers have been hit with some of the lowest prices seen in the last 12 years or more.  It’s a struggle that is felt by many in our school district.

How have you adapted your daily operations in response to COVID-19? Now, my teaching is done largely from home and from a computer. I don’t like it much, but I know it’s what I need to do.  I miss seeing the students and having them build skills as they should be in an agri-science classroom: hands-on. I am working on ways to help students build the skills that they would be normally gaining in class, but I still have to be cognizant of the fact that we have many socioeconomic factors that can affect access and ability to complete the assignments at home.

I am still at school most days tending to the plants in the greenhouse. I try to use that as a teaching tool through videos. I’m not great at taking videos (you hear a lot of Wisconsinite “ope” in my recordings as I realize I’m not paying attention to where the camera is pointed because I’m too busy talking), but it’s nice to keep the students connected with what they started and what many of them hoped they would finish. It’s satisfying for students to see the empty greenhouse at the end of spring and know that they had a role in everything that went on in there during the semester. I want them to feel at least some of that satisfaction this year.

It has also been challenging moving our FFA chapter to virtual management. FFA is such a social organization and an organization full of tradition. Many students have had a lot of disappointment this spring because many FFA-related events have been cancelled or postponed. We’re working on ideas to keep the chapter involved and the officers have some good, and fun, ideas.

Have you seen your community come together in response to COVID-19? If so, how? We have seen our community come together over the past couple of weeks in a big way with a project that one of my classes is running. It combines two areas of need seen not only in our area but throughout the country: the struggle with food security, as so many have lost employment, and the struggle of our nation’s farmers with low prices and processing issues.

The Ag Leadership class was in the process of planning a substantial “Thank a Farmer” project as the school closures were put into place. We, unfortunately, needed to cancel that project with the struggles of the local economy and social distancing measures.  The class is undertaking a new “Thank a Farmer” project, in conjunction with our FFA chapter, with a different focus. They are selling yard signs that say “Support Dairy – #DairyStrong” with all profits being used to purchase local dairy products for our food pantries. Each student in the class has a role in the project–food pantry liaison, promotion manager, secretary/financial manager–that I am altering so they can complete it from a distance. It’s certainly not as impactful as what they were planning, but this is far better for them than the alternative of online worksheets and “multiple guess” questions, even if it takes more work on my end.

As of April 19th, just over a week into sales, we have sold nearly 150 signs. The first 100 have all been delivered, the next 50 are on order. With some promotion and the peer pressure of folks seeing their neighbor with a sign, I’m hoping we can order another 50, 100, or more! The community has been generous, with many people donating extra money to go directly to the food pantries as well.  It’s a neat scene to be driving along the roads in our district and see house after house with a sign. It’s been a good project for the students who are learning a little bit of the process of putting on a community “event,” honing skills that can be used for anything from a pancake breakfast to a fundraising benefit. I look forward to seeing how these students can impact their community in the future with the skills they are building.

How has COVID-19 strengthened your relationships with others? It has made me be more intentional about connecting with others. I have more contact with my friends and family because I have more time and it’s not like I am seeing them anywhere else! The same goes for my students; I check in with them via email to see what they are up to and how they are doing.

Do you have any advice for others on keeping spirits up during times like these? I think that being able to disconnect from technology is important.  I will admit, technology does help keep us together and engaged in times like this and I’ve been able to participate in video chats with my fellow staff, ag teachers in my area, my FFA officers, and my own family.  However, I’ve been encouraging my students to take breaks, go outside, and do something that doesn’t need a laptop, tablet or phone. Getting away from all of that keeps you grounded.

Learn more about De Soto FFA’s Support Dairy sign campaign.


Dispatches from Our Own Wisconsin is a profile series that showcases fresh stories, observations, and insight from our Wisconsin Idea Seminar partners who are facing, engaging, and addressing critical issues in their communities.